On Friday, January 28, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling dismissing a lawyer’s lawsuit concerning negative online reviews. The appeals court ruled that the negative reviews were expressions of opinion that could not support a libel claim.
David Freydin, a Chicago lawyer, posted an “odd and offensive” comment on Facebook in September 2017: “Did Trump put Ukraine on the travel ban list?! We just cannot find a cleaning lady!” Commenters criticized Freydin online for this remark, but Freydin doubled down in the comments section by writing “My business with Ukrainians will be done when they stop declaring bankruptcies. If this offends your national pride, I suggest you look for underlying causes of why 9 out of 10 cleaning ladies we’ve had were Ukrainian and 9 out of 10 of my law school professors were not. Until then, if you don’t have a recommendation for a cleaning lady, feel free to take your comments somewhere else.” People began leaving negative reviews of Freydin on his law firm’s Facebook, Yelp, and Google pages.
Victoria Chamara left a detailed commentary on Freydin’s behavior, calling him an “embarrassment and a disgrace to the US judicial system,” referring to his comments as “unethical and derogatory,” and labeling him a “hypocrite,” “chauvinist,” and “racist” who “has no right to practice law.” Chamara had not previously used Freydin’s legal services. Freydin then sued Chamara and other defendants for their comments and reviews alleging: (1) libel per se; (2) false light; (3) tortious interference with contractual relationships; (4) tortious interference with prospective business relationships; and (5) civil conspiracy. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss on all claims.
On appeal, the panel of Seventh Circuit judges ruled that the defendants’ comments “are not actionable because they were statements of opinion.” The panel found that the statements in question did “not have precise and readily understood specific meanings” arising to the level of implied statements of fact. Further, the statements could not be objectively verified as true or false. The judges continued on to address the particular social context of the reviews: “We trust that readers of online reviews are skeptical about what they read, both positive and negative. But it is enough in this case that these short reviews did not purport to provide any factual foundation and were clearly meant to express the opinions of the defendants in response to Freydin’s insults to Ukrainians generally.”
Freydin argued that the reviews falsely implied that the defendants had actually used his legal services. The panel clarified that “[t]he point is not whether the individual commentator had a direct consumer relationship with the business that she reviewed. Rather, we ask if a reader could understand whether the reviewer was expressing opinions or facts.” As such, the judges found no reason why the defendants’ comments should be considered actionable libel due to the fact that they did not have a direct consumer relationship with Freydin or his firm.
Freydin further argued that “hypocrite,” “chauvinist,” and “racist” were not statements of opinion. Illinois defamation law, generally, “treats comments of this nature as actionable when based on identifiable conduct but as non-actionable when stated in general terms, without asserting specific factual support.” The appellate judges found these three specific words to fall into the second category and, thus, non-actionable statements of opinion. The judges further clarified that comments in a review must be analyzed in the correct context: “We cannot evaluate the defamatory nature of a word or phrase used in a review and determine whether the word or phrase is provably false on its own without considering the entire sentence and review in which it appeared.”
Freydin also argued that “a one-star review is, by itself, defamatory.” The panel of judges did not agree since they could not see “how a one-star review conveys any objective fact that could be false or true.” A rating reflects the reviewer’s own preferences, and preferences differ for a multitude of reasons. “The power of a review does not change the fact, however, that there is no measuring tool to gauge the reliability of a one-star rating or a five-star rating.”
Lawyer can’t pursue suit over negative online reviews by nonclients, 7th Circuit rules, ABA Journal (February 1, 2022)
Law Offices of David Freydin, et al v. Victoria Chamara, et al (Case No. 18-3216)
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