Crookston Times: Doctor’s Defamation Lawsuit Heads To Jury

Doctor’s Defamation Lawsuit Heads To Jury 

Crookston Times 

January 25, 2012

Laurion posted derogatory comments about McKee’s bedside manner.

A Minnesota appeals court says a jury should decide whether a Duluth man defamed a local doctor by posting derogatory comments about his bedside manner on rate-your-doctor websites.

The appeals court Monday sent the case back to St. Louis County for trial. A district court judge had earlier ruled Dr. David McKee was not defamed by the criticism and threw out his lawsuit against Dennis Laurion. McKee wants $50,000 in damages from Laurion for posting the statements on the Internet. Judge Eric Hylden said Laurion’s comments were opinions and constituted statements that were too vague to be defamatory.

The Duluth News Tribune says Laurion was critical of the treatment his father, Kenneth, received from McKee after suffering a stroke and spending four days at St. Luke’s hospital last year.

SOURCE

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion References And Precedents

 

 

 

HEALTHCARE Business & Technology E-Newsletter: More Doctors Sue Over Bad Online Reviews

More Doctors Sue Over Bad Online Reviews 

Sam Narisi 

HEALTHCARE Business & Technology E-Newsletter 

April 2, 2013

As more people turn to the web to help them make decisions about their healthcare, more potential patients will check out online reviews about doctors. And many physicians will do everything they can to protect their reputations on the web.

In some cases, that includes taking a patient to court because of negative online reviews.

Dr. David McKee of Minnesota recently lost a court battle in which he sued a patient’s son who had written negative comments about McKee on several doctor rating websites. The negative reviews were related to comments McKee had made to the patient and his family. Though McKee claimed the online reviews hurt his reputation and his business, the court threw out the case on the grounds that the comments were true and therefore not defamatory. 

McKee isn’t the only doctor who’s gone to court recently because of negative online reviews. According to the Digital Media Project at Harvard University, there have been at least seven court cases over the past five years or so related to online reviews of doctors. Those lawsuits show how difficult it is for doctors to win. In all of those cases, patients either agreed to take down their comments to avoid a suit, or the court threw out the case.

In one of the incidents, a neurosurgery patient posted several negative comments about a surgeon online, including insinuations that the doctor was responsible for creating an unusually high risk of death for patients. But when the surgeon sued, the court threw out the case on the grounds that the patient was engaging in free speech about a public issue. The doctor was ordered to pay $50,000 in legal fees.

Most experts warn doctors against taking legal action because of negative online reviews. In addition to the potential for losing a costly legal battle, they warn that in many cases, filing a suit only brings attention to the patient’s complaints.

Source

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion References And Precedents

 

 

 

Pioneer Press: Duluth Neurologist Sues Son Of A Former Patient

Duluth Neurologist Sues Son Of A Former Patient 

Pioneer Press 

June 12, 2010 

DULUTH, Minnesota — A Duluth neurologist is suing the son of a former stroke patient for publicly criticizing him.

Dr. David McKee, with Northland Neurology and Myology, wants more than $50,000 in damages from Dennis Laurion of Duluth in a lawsuit made public Friday.

McKee alleges that Laurion defamed him and interfered with his business by making false statements to third parties, including the American Academy of Neurology and the American Neurological Association.

Laurion’s 85-year-old father, Kenneth Laurion, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and spent four days hospitalized in April.

Among the allegations, McKee says Dennis Laurion lied when he claimed McKee blamed the patient for the loss of his time. Laurion tells the Duluth News Tribune that his statements were true and he is immune from liability.

 

Plaintiff David McKee MD

 

Defendant Dennis Laurion

 

SOURCE

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

KTAR Newsroom: Minnesota High Court Say Online Post Legally Protected

Minnesota High Court Say Online Post Legally Protected 

KTAR Newsroom

January 30, 2013

A man’s online post calling a doctor “a real tool” is protected speech, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled.

The state’s highest court dismissed a case by Duluth neurologist David McKee, who took offense when a patient’s son posted critical remarks about him on rate-your-doctor websites. Those remarks included a claim that a nurse called the doctor “a real tool,” slang for stupid or foolish.

The decision reversed a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that would have let the doctor’s lawsuit proceed to trial.

The opinion, written by Justice Alan Page, said the comments posted by Dennis Laurion don’t add up to defamation because they’re opinions that are entitled to free speech protections.

“Referring to someone as `a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term `real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false. … We conclude that it is an opinion amounting to `mere vituperation and abuse’ or `rhetorical hyperbole’ that cannot be the basis for a defamation action,” the justices said.

The ruling also said it doesn’t matter whether the unnamed nurse actually exists. McKee’s attorney argued that Laurion might have fabricated the nurse, something Laurion’s attorney denied. And it said the doctor’s objections to Laurion’s other comments also failed the required legal tests.

The case highlighted the tension that sometimes develops on ratings sites, such as Yelp and Angie’s List, when the free speech rights of patients clash with the rights of doctors, lawyers and other professionals to protect their good names.

Experts say lawsuits over negative professional reviews are relatively uncommon and rarely succeed, partly because the law favors freedom of speech.

This dispute was over how McKee treated Laurion’s father, who had suffered a stroke, during a single hospital visit in 2010 that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Laurion expressed his dismay in several online posts with what he considered the doctor’s insensitive manner.

“I’m sure he and his family are very happy with this result,” Laurion’s attorney, John Kelly, said. “It’s been a long and difficult process for them.”

McKee’s lawyer, Marshall Tanick, said he and McKee plan no further appeals and that they were disappointed with the ruling. “We feel it gives individuals undue license to make disparaging and derogatory statements about these people, particularly doctors and other licensed professionals, on the Internet without much recourse,” Tanick said.

While the decision is not binding in other states, Kelly and Tanick agreed that it might influence how other courts would rule on similar questions. Kelly said lawyers often look at rulings from other jurisdictions when they put cases together, sometimes for leads or guidance.

“Certainly this is a cutting edge issue and I’m sure lawyers and courts in other jurisdictions will pay attention to this decision and give it the weight it deserves,” Tanick said.

SOURCE

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

Fierce Healthcare: Online Patient Reviews Are Protected Speech

Court: Online Patient Reviews Are Protected Speech

By Alicia Caramenico

January 31, 2013

Fierce Healthcare

Amid doctors’ wariness about online review sites, the Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday ruled that an online patient review was not defamatory.

The decision ends a four-year legal battle that stemmed from a defamation lawsuit by neurologist David McKee. Following the hospitalization of Dennis Laurion’s father at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Laurion wrote reviews on several sites, with one claiming a nurse called the doctor “a real tool.”

The high court dismissed the defamation lawsuit and reversed an Appeals Court ruling that the statements harmed McKee’s reputation and could be proven as false. Moreover, according to the state Supreme Court, it doesn’t matter if the unnamed nurse really exists.

“Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact, and it cannot be proven true or false,” the opinion states.

The situation also highlights that defamation lawsuits are not without cost–to the providers and the patients involved.

McKee has spent at least $50,000 in legal fees, as well as $11,000 to clear his reputation after the incident prompted hundreds of negative online reviews. For Laurion, litigation costs have totaled more than two years’ income.

“The financial costs are significant, but money is money, and five years from now, I won’t notice the money I spent on this,” McKee said. “It’s been the harm to my reputation through the repeated publicity and the stress.”

Providers can take several steps to control their online reputation, such as training staff to impress and keeping listings up to date and accurate. To avoid defamation lawsuits, experts recommend providers first try to resolve the patient’s complaint, if a name is provided, and encourage them to remove or amend their review.

SOURCE

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

Newsbriefs – PIAA: Minnesota High Court Rules Online Patient Reviews Are Protected Speech

Minnesota High Court Rules Online Patient Reviews Are Protected Speech

Newsbriefs – PIAA

February 1, 2013

Amid doctors’ wariness about online review sites, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that an online patient review was not defamatory. The decision ends a four-year legal battle that stemmed from a defamation lawsuit by neurologist David McKee. Following the hospitalization of Dennis Laurion’s father at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota, Laurion wrote reviews on several sites, with one claiming a nurse called the doctor “a real tool.” The high court dismissed the defamation lawsuit and reversed an Appeals Court ruling that the statements harmed McKee’s reputation and could be proven as false. Moreover, according to the state Supreme Court, it doesn’t matter if the unnamed nurse really exists. “Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact, and it cannot be proven true or false,” the opinion states. The situation also highlights that defamation lawsuits are not without cost—to the providers and the patients involved. McKee has spent at least $50,000 in legal fees, as well as $11,000 to clear his reputation after the incident prompted hundreds of negative online reviews.

PIAA is the insurance trade association representing domestic and international medical professional liability (MPL) insurance companies, risk retention groups, captives, trusts, and other entities.

SOURCE

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

“Taking Cloaks to the Cleaners” Mentions McKee V Laurion

Taking Cloaks to the Cleaners: A Case Study of Yelp V.Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Reveals the Need for Stronger Unmasking Standards

A THESIS  SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY OF UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

BY

Kristen Patrow

IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS

Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders

June 2014

This thesis begins with a discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal defamation cases. A discussion of the historical protections for anonymous speech follows, providing a foundation for the discussion of anonymous speech online. This paper examines multiple cases to establish the judicial standards that courts have developed to determine whether to unmask the identity of anonymous commenters online. A case study of the recent Yelp decision follows, highlighting the incongruity with these various standards. Next, an in-depth examination of James Carey’s models of communication and the theoretical justifications for protecting anonymous and harmful speech explains the need for a national unmasking standard. To conclude, the thesis proposes an unmasking law that comports with First Amendment protections of speech and societal interest in punishing harmful speakers for their misdeeds.

INTRODUCTION

What happens when negative reviews appear to correspond with a drop in revenue? For Joe Hadeed, owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, it meant it was time to sue the commenters who left the negative reviews of his business.

Over the course of a few weeks in 2012, a long sequence of negative reviews caused Hadeed’s rating on the popular review site Yelp to plummet. According to Hadeed, following the string of unfavorable comments, business dropped by 30% and revenue dropped from $12 million in 2011 to $9.5 million in 2012, which caused Hadeed to lay off 80 workers and sell six trucks.

Hadeed sued Yelp in July 2012, asserting his company had been defamed because the reviewing customers could not be matched to the company’s records, which included “time, location, and sales data.”

Yelp refused to hand over the identifying information of the commenters, but Virginia’s trial and intermediate appellate courts agreed with Hadeed and held Yelp in contempt.

In January 2014, Yelp appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, asserting that Hadeed had not adequately proved the statements were defamatory.

More and more frequently, businesses are claiming they need protection from false and defamatory postings, often referred to as “revenge reviews,” on websites like Yelp. Yelp, on the other hand, claims the reviews are protected by the First Amendment and has hired a lobbyist to support a federal Anti-SLAPP law.

Anti-SLAPP laws try to prevent powerful plaintiffs from filing unsubstantiated claims against detractors in an effort to silence their speech. Plaintiffs may use costly court fees to threaten defendants with financial hardship when they disagree with the views that are expressed.

Yelp launched in 2004 as a way for consumers “to connect with great local businesses.” It offers a review system that relies on patrons to rate establishments they frequent. Yelp is one of many online rating and reviewing sites, and it had 120 million unique visitors per month in the last three months of 2013. The company states that most of its reviews praise good businesses, but that it encourages negative reviews as  long as they are honest. In its Terms of Use, Yelp asks reviewers to share their personal experiences and not those of a third party because the company remains neutral in review disputes. Yelp asserts that it expects reviewers to “stand behind your review.”

In recent years, various claims for defamation against users of Yelp and similar websites have surfaced because business owners were not pleased with some of the reviews. When a court finds that a reviewer was merely expressing an opinion rather than a false assertion of fact, the speech is generally protected because under the First Amendment, “there is no such thing as a false idea.

For example, in Minnesota, a man used various doctor-review websites to complain about the physician who treated his father. In his suit, the doctor stated that these claims were defamatory, including a statement where the reviewer calls the doctor a “real tool.” The doctor did not win the case because the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that calling someone a “tool” was an expression of opinion and not a statement of fact. ( *** )

As mentioned earlier, many businesses revile Yelp and believe the website provides a breeding ground for unwarranted disparagement and harassment. Studies have shown that small businesses have more to gain from Yelp reviews, so it follows they likely also have more to lose. Some small businesses have filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asserting that Yelp’s algorithm unfairly targets businesses who do not buy advertising by highlighting negative reviews.

Of course, Yelp denies these claims and asserts that marketing personnel do not have access to the algorithm. Yelp also notes that businesses are free to set up an account and “claim” their page. Claiming a page allows an establishment to monitor its reviews and to dialogue with reviewers both publically and privately. Opening an account is an easy way for businesses to defend themselves against negative reviews on the very same platform that the negative reviews surface. Businesses can also be proactive and ask satisfied regular patrons to review them on Yelp.

Disgruntled business owners have little recourse against Yelp unless they can prove that the website itself is actively violating the law. Though some businesses have tried to hurt Yelp by filing complaints with the FTC, unless they can prove that Yelp is contributing to unprotected speech, the businesses are out of luck. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects Yelp; the Good Samaritan provision immunizes interactive computer services who publish third-party content. This means that businesses receiving negative reviews cannot hold Yelp legally liable for the comments. Instead, the businesses must target the individual reviewers if they wish to recover damages. According to the Wall Street Journal, Yelp receive s an average of six subpoenas a month, and many of them are linked to civil lawsuits.

. . .

CONCLUSION

A proposed national test solidifies First Amendment protection for anonymous speech online by considering the context and content of speech. Implementing a uniform test for unmasking anonymous commenters would provide legal stability that is not dependent upon technology but instead looks to the core principles that support free expression. Anonymity, in itself, is not always harmful either online or off-line, and it should continue to enjoy robust constitutional protection. The Court has recognized that cloaking has productive uses and may be used to fruitfully counter majority’s views. Dissent theory shows the important role anonymity  plays in the democratic process, a role that has many societal benefits.

A national test would also alleviate some of the current jurisdictional issues that arise when courts address speech on the Internet. Tests that do not properly weigh the importance of protecting masked speakers place First Amendment rights in peril and also impede the due process of law. The ruling in Yelp v. Hadeed shows that some unmasking standards currently in use currently tip the balance in favor of plaintiffs.

Of course, the right to anonymity is not absolute, and courts can rescind anonymity if it insulates those who utter words beyond the scope of First Amendment protections. Appropriate tests must balance the needs of society against the individual’s constitutional right to anonymity. A national unmasking standard, such as the one outlined above, would help ensure that courts correctly strike this balance in future cases.

FULL SOURCE WITH REFERENCES

( *** ) David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion