Yelp Ordered to Turn Over Documents That May Reveal Anonymous User's Identity

By William Vogeler, Esq. on November 15, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'Anonymous' doesn't mean what it used to mean in the media.

Back in the day, a news reporter might go to the grave with a source's true identity. Today, with everybody publishing something online, it's not so easy to hide.

Yelp, the online review site, tried to keep one reviewer's identity a secret. But a California appeals court said the company must disclose documents that may reveal the person's identity in Montagna v. Yelp, Inc.

"Absolute Nightmare"

The issue came up after Gregory M. Montagna, an accountant, sued Sandra Jo Nunis and other unknown persons for trade libel. Nunis allegedly went on Yelp and said his services were "an absolute nightmare."

"Bill was way more than their quote; return was so sloppy I had another firm redo it and my return more than doubled," the reviewer, "Alex M," said. "If you dare to complain get ready to be screamed at, verbally harassed and threatened with legal action."

Through a deposition subpoena, Montagna sought business records from Yelp to identify "Alex M." The company refused to produce the documents, saying the subpoena violated the reviewer's free speech rights.

A trial judge granted a motion to compel, finding that Yelp lacked standing to enforce the reviewer's rights and that the plaintiff was entitled to discover the reviewer's identity. Yelp petitioned the appeals court for relief.

Online Anonymity

The Fourth District Court of Appeal said Yelp had standing, but affirmed the trial judge's orders to compel. It was a setback for Yelp, and an education for Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pinterest, and other electronic media giants who filed amicus briefs in the case.

Reviewing the decision, Reuters said online anonymity is "slipping away." Alison Frankel wrote that the courts "seem to be developing a consensus that rejects the widely-accepted balancing test in Dendrite International v. Doe."

In that case, the court said judges should balance the First Amendment right to speak anonymously against a plaintiff's right to protect its reputation. In the Yelp case, however, the court said discovery includes an entitlement to learn "the identity and location of persons having knowledge of any discoverable matter."

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