This may sound a little self-serving coming from a lawyer, but if you’re a disgruntled client and you use the Internet to vent about your lawyer’s terrible service, you may get sued. And worse yet, you may lose. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Copia Blake and Peter Birzon recently learned this lesson the hard way. Ms. Blake and Mr. Birzon were going through a dissolution of their marriage. Ms. Blake retained Ann-Marie Giustibelli to represent her in the proceedings. Apparently, things didn’t work out between Ms. Blake and Ms. Giustibelli. And thereafter, Ms. Blake and Mr. Birzon took to the Internet to post “reviews” of Ms. Giustibelli’s performance (the court noted it was “odd” that Mr. Birzon joined in the online criticism. In Ms. Giustibelli’s defense, at least she got the couple to agree on something.)
The reviews were pretty harsh. Here’s a representative sample:
This lawyer represented me in my divorce. She was combative and explosive and took my divorce to a level of anger which caused major suffering of my minor children. She insisted I was an emotionally abused wife who couldn't make rational decisions which caused my case to drag on in the system for a year and a half so her FEES would continue to multiply!! She misrepresented her fees with regards to the contract I initially signed. The contract she submitted to the courts for her fees were 4 times her original quote and pages of the original had been exchanged to support her claims, only the signature page was the same. Shame on me that I did not have an original copy, but like an idiot . . . I trusted my lawyer. Don't mistake sincerity for honesty because I assure you, that in this attorney's case, they are NOT the same thing. She absolutely perpetuates the horrible image of attorneys who are only out for the money and themselves. Although I know this isn't the case and there are some very good honest lawyers out there, Mrs. Giustibelli is simply not one of the "good ones[.]" Horrible horrible experience. Use anyone else, it would have to be a better result. . . .
I accepted an initial VERY fair offer from my ex. Mrs. Giustibelli convinced me to "crush" him and that I could have permanent etc. Spent over a year (and 4 times her original estimate) to arrive at the same place we started at. Caused unnecessary chaos and fear with my kids, convinced me that my ex cheated (which he didn't), that he was hiding money (which he wasn't), and was mad at ME when I realized her fee circus had gone on long enough and finally said "stop[.]" Altered her fee structures, actually replaced original documents with others to support her charges and generally gave the kind of poor service you only hear about. I'm not a disgruntled ex-wife. I'm just the foolish person who believes that a person's word should be backed by integrity. Not even remotely true in this case. I've had 2 prior attorneys and never ever have I seen ego and monies be so blatantly out of control.
Ms. Giustibelli filed a libel suit. At trial, Blake and Birzon admitted that Giustibelli had not charged Blake four times more than what was quoted in the agreement. The court entered judgment in favor of Giustibelli and awarded punitive damages of $350,000.
Not surprisingly, given the size of the verdict, Ms. Blake and Mr. Birzon appealed. They argued the review was merely “opinion” and could not justify a libel verdict in favor of the lawyer. That argument was half right. They are correct that true opinion cannot support a libel verdict. And there is a simple reason for this. A person has to make a false statement to commit libel. And a true opinion can’t be proven false. A movie reviewer might write that “Oliver Stone is the most over bearing and pretentious film maker of our generation.” Is that false? People may disagree with that assessment, but the disagreement doesn’t make it false. That is the nature of a true opinion.
But facts are actionable – even if they are embedded in a “review.” So here, while Ms. Blake and Mr. Birzon certainly vented in an opinionated fashion, they made a very declarative statement of fact – that Ms. Giustibelli charged four times her estimate. That’s not an opinion – either she did or she didn’t. And the jury concluded she did not. The fact that the factual statement was surrounded by other opinions couldn’t save the defendants. And, because the comments would tend to adversely affect Ms. Giustibelli in her business, the comments were “defamatory per se.” Which means Ms. Giustibelli didn’t even have to prove actual economic damages.
The lesson? Take to online review sites carefully. If your “review” contains facts that are provably false – you may have a new title – defendant.