Yelp Defamation Case Heard by California Supreme Court

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 05, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Attorney Dawn Hassell made it to the California Supreme Court the hard way.

After getting a bad Yelp review, Hassell sued her former client for it and obtained a default judgment. It included a $550,000 award that the attorney could frame and hang on a wall.

But it got complicated when she tried to force Yelp to remove the post. That led to a Supreme Court showdown over Hassell v. Yelp, Inc.

Communications Decency Act

A state appeals court ruled against Yelp, which had refused to remove the offending review. The company said it was not a party to the lawsuit between the lawyer and the client, and that the law protected it from the court's orders.

In oral arguments before the state supreme court, Yelp attorney Thomas Burke told the justices that it was about free speech and the Communications Decency Act. The CDA grants immunity to internet service providers for third-party communications.

However, Justice Leondra Kruger questioned how Section 230 of the Act applies if Yelp doesn't follow the court's orders.

"So, Section 230 essentially is a license to continue to publish harmful or defamatory material in perpetuity?" she asked.

Opportunity to Be Heard

According to reports, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye seemed concerned that Yelp was not included in the underlying proceedings against Hassell's client over the Yelp. Now the court has to deal with Yelp's liability without its day in court, she said.

Cantil-Sakauye wondered aloud whether the lower-court injunction to remove the Yelp review could be rewritten at all.

"Because then we're getting into serious matters that can affect business practices, costs, shareholders and free speech," she said. "Yet, we're never giving the party who is required to act an opportunity to truly be heard."

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