Yelp Sues Law Firm for ‘Fake’ Good Reviews
In a twist on the typical bad-review-on-Yelp litigation, Yelp itself is suing a law firm for allegedly having its employees flood the site with good reviews.
Flood of Glowing Reviews
After San Diego-based law firm McMillan Law Group received its first review on Yelp in 2010 — a very negative one — the site received a flood of positive reviews from employees of the firm.
“McMillan Law Group employees pretend to be clients and review their own employer on Yelp,” claims the suit, which points to four specific examples of personal accounts created by the firm’s employees that were used to post five-star rave reviews about the firm and its supposed work for them.
Yelp also alleges that McMillan is one of a circle of firms in the San Diego area who trade glowing reviews of each other, despite never having hired each other.
Alleging breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations, and false advertising, on Aug. 20 Yelp sued the law firm. The suit claims that fake reviews — even good ones — are bad not only for Yelp’s business but also for consumers, undermining the integrity and reliability of its service.
Yelp demands an unspecified amount of damages, including punitive damages, and wants a jury trial, according to the complaint.
Bad Blood on the Astroturf
It’s called “Astroturfing” — the practice of concealing the true source of a message in order to hide the fact that the source is not disinterested. Astroturf was designed to cover the fields of sports stadiums and give the appearance of real grass.
One news story pointed out that the battle might have begun previously, when the firm sued Yelp over allegedly coercing it to sign an advertising contract for — ironically — good reviews. While the firm won $2,700 from Yelp, its suit was forced into arbitration, based on Yelp’s terms of service.
McMillan’s owner, Julian McMillan, claims to have won that suit and even offers to help clients do the same against Yelp. “I recently won a judgment against Yelp for fraud with respect to their standard terms and conditions advertising contract,” he says on the firm’s website.
“The judge likened them to the Mafia extorting protection money from small businesses and if you are a Yelp advertiser I’d like to help you,” McMillan says.
Those TOS are the key to Yelp’s argument in the present case as well. Before they can write reviews, Yelp requires users to agree to the TOS, which forbid writing fake (or defamatory, or paid-for) reviews, as well as trading reviews.
Because the defendant firm encouraged its employees — who were Yelp users who agreed to the TOS — to breach the TOS, it is liable for interfering with Yelp’s contractual relations with those users, according to the suit. And because members of the public are likely to be deceived by the fake reviews, the firm is allegedly liable for unfair business practices and false advertising.
Likely Not a SLAPP
Bad reviews on Yelp have become major fodder for lawsuits against reviewers — mainly for defamation — and have attracted anti-SLAPP legislation aimed at preventing attempts to shut down debate about public matters. A SLAPP is a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”
But Yelp’s law suit in this case is a totally different creature, indicates Evan Mascagni, an attorney with the California Anti-SLAPP Project in Berkeley. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that Yelp has filed such a case,” Mascagni says.
And it’s probably not a SLAPP, so the firm isn’t likely to use California’s anti-SLAPP law as a defense. “At first read, this doesn’t seem to be a SLAPP,” Mascagni notes. “SLAPPs are meritless lawsuits that some individuals and businesses use as weapons against those who petition the government or speak out on public issues.”
“Here, it does not appear that Yelp filed this lawsuit with the intent to chill the free speech rights of the law firm,” he says. “Rather, this lawsuit appears to be an attempt by Yelp to maintain the credibility of the consumer reviews on its website by ensuring that such reviews are real and honest.”