Small business owners such as Virginia’s Joe Hadeed recognize the free speech rights of individuals to post negative reviews on Yelp. But, on the heels of his case heading to the Virginia Supreme Court, Hadeed could not help but ask a reporter, “where’s my right to defend my business?”
Hadeed’s case will be heard in Virginia’s highest court later in April, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Wednesday. In January, the Virginia Court of Appeals ordered Yelp to comply with a subpoena, which asked the website to turn over the identities of the individuals behind several anonymous Yelp reviews. However, the San Francisco-based company has argued the reviews about Hadeed Carpet Cleaning are protected by the First Amendment and that Hadeed has presented little evidence the posts were fake.
Despite generally favorable Yelp reviews about his Springfield, Va., business, in early 2012 Hadeed noticed a series of harsh posts appear on Yelp. Hadeed told the WSJ that, as a result of these reviews, business dropped off by 30% in 2012, revenue dropped $2.5 million, they cleaned 9,000 fewer carpets than the prior year, and he was forced to let go of 80 workers.
According to the article, Hadeed claims “at least seven” of the negative reviews are fake, based on his inability to match them with actual customers, times, locations and other sales data.
In our experience, we have seen similar cases to Hadeed’s, although the ideal situation for a client is not to end up in court. In previous posts, we have discussed basic removal strategies, including persuading the author to remove their harmful reviews or having Yelp remove reviews based on Terms of Service violations.
But as Hadeed has learned, it is not always that easy – especially when a competitor may be involved – and it may be necessary to file a lawsuit to identify anonymous posters. We have also previously discussed the typical process involved in identifying anonymous reviewers, which includes a reference to the Virginia appellate court’s January ruling.
This will be a case to keep an eye on this month, to see whether or not the Virginia Supreme Court grants Yelp’s appeal.