In a decision that will have remodelers and contractors cheering, a Virginia court ruled on Dec. 5 that a dissatisfied customer has to pull down part of the negative review she put on Yelp and Angie’s List about the contractor who remodeled her Falls Church, Va., townhouse.
Among the typical complaints about cost overruns and shoddy workmanship, the irate customer further accused the contractor, Christopher Dietz, owner of Dietz Development, in Washington, D.C., of trespassing and theft. Dietz sued for $750,000 claiming that the homeowner's online accusations had cost his company $300,000 in lost business, not to mention the damage to his reputation.
“I didn’t want to sue her,” Dietz says. “It’s going to cost me more than what she owes me. I can’t even begin to fathom how much damage her statements have caused and will cause unless I can get these postings removed and stop the bleeding.” The client owes Dietz $10,000.
The review sites wouldn't remove the derogatory postings even after Dietz offered to provide documented proof of his innocence — including letters from Virginia’s attorney general and the Better Business Bureau. “She’s lying about legal issues, and I have evidence that she’s lying and you won’t remove it?” Dietz recalls saying to someone at Angie’s List, who told him that no, they wouldn’t remove the posts because Angie's is just a forum.
“And that’s why I took legal action,” Dietz continues. “Not because I want the money or want to sue her or want to suppress free speech, but because it was the only way to get these postings taken down.”
After his case made headlines, he heard from a real estate agent who dealt with this same client and said “she was a nightmare from the get-go.” Further, other small-business owners in the Washington area have contacted Dietz and thanked him for his efforts against Yelp and Angie’s List. “More than one small-business owner has said that they wanted to sue Yelp but didn’t know how,” Dietz says. “One guy said that Yelp ruined his reputation and he had to sell his business.” These were not just other contractors; Dietz heard from a realty company and a massage therapy business, among others.
“That Sounds Like Extortion to Me”
According to Dietz, online ratings sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List are using Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
In other words, if the site didn’t write it, it’s not the site's problem. However, in this case Dietz was determined for it not to be his problem either, so he resorted to legal action. Again, Dietz has no problem with this stipulation that the sites stand behind. But he does have a problem with the fact that all reviews are apparently not created equal.
According to Dietz, if the sites see too many positive reviews, they will suppress them and not allow them to be published. “They say that their program software views all these positives as illegitimate, and so they are removed,” he explains. “But if you want the positives back up, you need to pay a monthly service fee. That sounds like extortion to me.”
Ironically, negative reviews seem to not be targeted by the sites’ highly sensitive program software — even if they contain foul language, which the negative reviews on Dietz’s company contained.
Too Many Bad Apples
Dietz hopes that the publicity this case has received will cause these review sites to rethink their policies regardless of what the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230 says. Corey Perlman, president of online consultancy eBoot Camp, is doubtful.
“I’m unsure if this decision will have an overall impact on online customer reviews, but I hope it does,” Perlman says. “People should have to think twice before firing off an accusation without sufficient evidence. Review sites are a great resource for consumers, but the bad apples that use it as a tool for slander should be held accountable.”
Then again, some clients start out looking for a free kitchen, according to Richard Feeley president of Feeley Mediation and Business Law, in Marietta, Ga., and a REMODELING columnist.
“Sites like Angie’s List, while they do offer some valuable information, also have created a ready-made place for folks with a beef with a contractor to say whatever they want about them,” Feeley says. “If the remodeler doesn’t quickly resolve disputes, he should be aware that his brand can take a big hit if someone decides to take it to the Web.”
So is this what it’s come to? Hardworking contractors and remodelers needing to lawyer up every time a client goes online? Perlman, for one, is pinning his hopes on the websites to start policing themselves better or rewrite their policies regardless of the what the law states. “My hope would be that review sites offer tougher guidelines for reviews so as to eliminate false or unproven claims as well as reviews — positive or negative — from people who have not used a service or purchased a product,” he says.
Feeley also does not see the courts filling up with toolbelt-wearing litigants. “It is a very narrow ruling,” he says of the Virginia court’s decision. “This woman was simply told to remove unprovable statements about the alleged theft and the winning of a lawsuit she didn’t win from the sites. She was not told to remove any other statements about her opinion of the contractor or his work. Thus, there is nothing new here, simply a ruling by a judge telling her that she can no longer publish allegations she can’t prove or statements that are provably false.”
Despite the ruling, Dietz is not completely satisfied because what lives on the Internet tends to stay there indefinitely. “The damage might not ever stop,” he says. “At the end of the day, if she has to pay me, she pays and she washes her hands of it and she’s done. I might be financially damaged for years and never recoup while having to defend my reputation. All because she sat at home and called me a criminal.”
Dietz, a member of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, the U.S. Green Building Council, and a certified contractor for lead removal and universal design, is frustrated because he feels that he has done all the right things for his profession.
“I want to grow my business and save for the future,” he says. “I’m a principled person, and I can’t be called a criminal when I’m not. She can call me a crappy contractor all she wants, but I know otherwise; my clients and my portfolio speak to that. I don’t do this for my own entertainment; I do it because I take my job seriously.”
—Mark A. Newman, senior editor, REMODELING.
The Client’s Attorney Responds:
James Bacon, a partner with Allred, Bacon, Halfhill & Young, in Fairfax, Va., served as counsel to the client whom Dietz sued to get the inflammatory remarks removed from the review sites. REMODELING reached out to Bacon to get the other side of the story and he responded.
Bacon reiterates attorney Richard Feeley’s comments above about the ruling. In her reviews, the client stated that she had previously won an initial court hearing against Dietz but in actuality it was simply a ruling that was a dismissal with prejudice in the client’s favor, Bacon explains. “She needed to change that wording so that it more accurately reflects the true nature of the procedure,” he says.
Bacon further explained that the other portion of the review that the judge ruled needed to be removed from the review website was the implication of criminal activity by Dietz. “Once the key was returned, she realized her jewelry had gone missing,” Bacon says. “These are all true statements. But legally, the implication is that he’s a thief or his crew took her jewelry. Unless she can show that to be the case, legally that implication should not be there. So she had to take down that part of the post.”
Bacon further questions the logic of Dietz continuing to pursue the case when it could only seem to highlight the client’s initial complaints. “If I’m the contractor, why would I be trying to get publicity for myself or continuing this case knowing full well that my claims that I did not do poor work, that I did not overcharge, that I did not damage the home are only going to be revived and scrutinized and made public even more so?” he says. “In my own humble opinion, I would wonder what’s more prudent and what’s going to damage a reputation more: to revisit all these problems than declare yourself a winner because you did get a preliminary injunction and move on so you don’t have to answer those charges again?”