Sunday, January 20, 2008

Is it legal to express opinions about lawyers?

Click HERE to see the website that caused a lawsuit.

Click HERE for David Ardia's report on Citizens Media Law Project.

Below is part of the report by David Ardia:

Browne v. Avvo Inc.
Posted December 19th, 2007 by David Ardia
Threat type:
LawsuitDate: 06/14/2007
Subject Area(s): Anonymity, CDA 230, Reviews

PartiesParty Issuing Threat:
John Henry Browne; Alan J Wenokur;

Party Receiving Threat:
Avvo Inc.; Mark Britton; John 1-25 Does



ConcludedDisposition:
Dismissed (total) Verdict or Settlement Amount:
Description:
On June 14, 2007, two prominent lawyers in Seattle, WA filed a class action lawsuit against Avvo Inc., the operator of Avvo.com, a website that profiles and rates lawyers and allows users to submit reviews of lawyers they have worked with. Plaintiffs also sued Mark Britton, Avvo's CEO, and 25 anonymous "John Doe" users of the site.

The lawsuit alleges that Avvo's rating system, which plaintiffs claim resulted in their receiving an unreasonably low score, violates the Washington Consumer Protection Act. They also allege that Avvo purports to be objective but is subject to manipulation, cannot produce a reliable system, contains inherent inconsistencies, does not provide a reliable benchmark for assessing lawyer competence, encourages consumer trust in a fallible system, allows attorneys to manipulate their ratings, promotes qualities of attorneys in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct, and does not accurately report in the categories where it purports to do so. As a result, they assert that Avvo has damaged their reputation and good will. Moreover, by filing a class action lawsuit, the two lawyers are disputing not only their own rankings on the site, but are also challenging the accuracy and validity of the mathematical algorithm used by Avvo to rate and compare attorneys.

On June 28, 2007, defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, which the court granted on December 18. In dismissing the complaint without leave to amend, Judge Lasnik wrote that the ratings on the site are protected statements of opinion, noting that "defendants' rating is not only defensible, it is virtually impossible to prove wrong." While evidencing clear skepticism about lawyer ratings generally, the judge also took the plaintiffs to task for bringing the lawsuit:

[P]laintiffs Browne and Wenokur want to make a federal case out of the number assigned to them because (a) it could harm their reputation, (b) it could cost them customers/fees, or (c) it could mislead the lawyer-hiring public into retaining poor lawyers or bypassing better lawyers. To the extent that their lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them. To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action

Judge Lasnik also rejected the plaintiffs' claim under the Washington Consumer Protection Act, concluding that the rankings are not commercial enough to fall under the act and any damages resulting from consumer misinformation are too speculative to support a claim.

As to Avvo’s possible defense under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the judge noted that "[p]laintiffs have disavowed any claim based on content that Avvo obtained from a third-party and the Court need not consider this defense further."



Update: No word on whether the plaintiffs will appeal.

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