MAY 17, 2011
“Dentist Who Sued Yelp Must Pay Legal Fees”
By Wendy Davis, MEDIA POST
A dentist who sued Yelp and two reviewers for a negative post has herself been ordered to pay almost $81,000 under a California law that protects people’s right to discuss matters of public interest.
The ruling, issued last week by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Peter Kirwan, directs dentist Yvonne Wong to pay attorneys’ fees and legal costs to Yelp, as well as Tai Jing and Jia Ma, parents of a 6-year-old patient of Wong’s.
The case dates to January of 2009, when Wong sued Yelp as well as Tai Jing, and his wife, Jia Ma, about a bad review on the site. Wong alleged that the couple wrote that their son was left lightheaded from laughing gas administered by Wong, and that he received a filling containing mercury.
Wong said those statements libeled her and caused her emotional distress; she argued that the post implied that she had not informed Jing and his wife ahead of time that the filling would contain mercury.
A California appellate court ruled last year that Yelp was entitled to dismissal under the state’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute, because the post furthered discussion on issues of public interest. The court wrote that the review concerned the controversy surrounding mercury in dental fillings, and therefore was subject to the anti-SLAPP law.
Yelp was probably also immune from liability under the federal Communications Decency Act, which says that sites are not legally responsible for defamation by users. But that law, unlike California’s anti-SLAPP statute, does not provide for defendants to recover legal fees.
Ma also convinced the California appellate court that she was entitled to dismissal of all claims under the anti-SLAPP law, given that Wong presented no evidence showing that Ma authored the post.
As for Jing, the court ruled that Wong’s claims of emotional distress should be dismissed under the state’s anti-SLAPP law because Wong did not allege that her emotional upset caused by the review was severe or long-lasting. But the appeals court allowed Wong’s libel claim against Jing to proceed to trial. That count is still pending.
Nonetheless, the appellate ruling in favor of Yelp and Ma on all claims, and on Jing for the emotional distress claim, set the stage for all three to argue that Wong owed them attorneys’ fees. California’s anti-SLAPP law says that a person who brings a suit that violates the law must pay the defendant’s legal bills.
Yelp and the parents said they had incurred legal bills of $113,620, but Kirwan knocked the fee award down to $80,714.
The California law is aimed at discouraging people from filing lawsuits that could discourage others from speaking about controversial matters. But California Anti-SLAPP Project attorney Paul Clifford, who represents Yelp and the parents, says that people continue to bring questionable cases stemming from online reviews despite the law. “Some people don’t get the message,” he says. “We still get people calling us regularly involving Yelp reviews.”
Clifford says that his organization has represented Yelp in at least four lawsuits. At least two others — also brought by dentists — have resulted in anti-SLAPP dismissals and orders requiring the dentists to pay attorneys’ fees, he says.