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Can Realtors sue over negative reviews on ratings sites?

Talking about Realtor reviews

We’ve been talking a lot about Realtor ratings sites the past few years and how Realtors should be aware of them, how they work and which ones are good (and which ones are scams).

This week, a doctor filed suit for negative comments published online (click the link for full details, we won’t get into opining on this active litigation, rather the concept and basics of the lawsuit).

The doctor alleges that a patient’s son was displeased with his bedside manner (calling him a “tool” online) and his lawyer said, “The basis for the lawsuit is the defamatory statements that were made on websites and to other sources. The purpose of the lawsuit is to prevent defamation being made on the websites and through other sources.”

Defense’s counsel claims that when the doctor contacted his client, the posts were voluntarily removed but the doctor is pursuing damages in the amount of $50,000 regardless. Defense counsel said, “I think it’s an unfortunate incident of someone attempting to punish a person who has spoken out of concern for a family member.”

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Can you sue over negative reviews?

In theory, if a lawsuit is won claiming negative reviews hurt a person’s business, wouldn’t there be a counterpoint that reviewers could sue for publishing positive reviews that help a person’s business? Couldn’t they sue for their share of profits if someone can sue for negative profits?

Our opinion is that anyone can sue for anything, but it has to have merit. That is not to say whether or not the aforementioned lawsuit has merit, it is to say that of course you can sue, but winning is another question altogether. We await a ruling on this case to determine whether or not precedent is set for this emerging sector of ratings and review websites.

How have you handled any negative reviews online?

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

33 Comments

33 Comments

  1. Daniel Bates

    March 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I’m no lawyer, but I do Tivo People’s Court (sad, so so sad, but true) and this is how I see it:

    People are almost never held liable for statements of their opinion because these are not facts. Who is going to read some punk kids (statement of opinion) statement that someone is a “tool” and believe that to be true. Same thing goes with statement from clients that might read something like, “XYZ never made time for us”, or they didn’t “return our calls in a timely manner” or acted “unprofessional”. These are all those clients opinions and can’t be defeated unless you have phone records showing that the statements were patently false, off instance they never once called and you didn’t pick up the phone.

    The second part of such a lawsuit is your actual damages. You are going to have to PROVE a loss of business from these reviews. That means that you are going to need at the very least affidavits from buyers who actually did business with another agent and that agent was paid because they believed the negative reviews and decided that they would not be well-served in doing business with you based on those reviews. How do you find these people? How do you convince them to testify on your behalf? Simply saying, look at this slump I’m in judge/jury, I made lots more money before this negative review is not going to pass in court.

  2. Benn Rosales

    March 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    If I can call you a dumb ass online, surely I can call you a tool too, or a troll, or a crappy [insert profession title here]. Answer, be a better [insert profession title here], or learn how to turn into the skid. What a dumbass.

  3. Matt Cohen

    March 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    I’ve heard an industry attorney opine that any organization that publishes agent rating should have publisher’s insurance to address potential liability. Whether the rating publisher wins or loses, there may still be attorney costs at the very least.

  4. Kathy Strader

    March 23, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    As you say, anyone can sue over anything. This doctor will have to prove that he was injured by the remarks and they were not true.

    Good comes with bad, and in this on line day and age, it seems reasonable to expect a negative review now and then. If a Realtor truly is injured by an untrue remark, then it may be reasonable to sue, but the Realtor would have the weigh the possibility of negative press. Sometimes, that can be worse that the initial remark.

    Given the amount named in the lawsuit, this doctor is trying to prove a point. Even if he doesn’t win the suit, he feels he wins because his, “Don’t mess with me” message will be out. Lawsuits are expensive to defend even if they are baseless.

  5. Todd

    March 23, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    I suggest that you enter the words “Yelp sued over rating” and read through the 100+ instances that have already gone through the courts.

    Same goes for 10,000+ ebay sellers who tried to sue people ( and ebay itself ) for bad reviews.

    99% of the ebay and Yelp cases were dismissed, favoring the defendant ( who wrote the bad review ) and often making the plaintiff ( lawyer/restaurant/business, etc complaining about being given a bad review ) pay for court costs.

    If you see a real estate agent, or anyone for that matter, using the court system to try and control “what the internet says” consider it a red flag. No one has ever successfully litigated their way to a good reputation – ever.

    “Thou doth protest too much” as they say.

  6. rob aubrey

    March 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    I have seen a lot of nonsense from lots of folks online. Some just simply juvenile and this concerns me.

    I am a big fan of free speech and all that, but there is a responsibility that comes along with that.

    I am also a big fan of innocent till proven guilty. To give people the power to try and convict someone without any process…

    this one is a little tough.

    Can someone defend them self? If an agent defends them self could they be in a position of disclosing confidential info.

    note to self, talk with attorney and modify agency contract to cover…

  7. Sig

    March 24, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Suppose some REALTOR didn’t like another Realtor and began a stealth campaign to have as many friends of his/hers to write bogus bad reviews just to make the REALTOR look bad in the eyes of the public and hurt his/her reputation? How would the damaged Realtor Sue all of them? How would he/her ever stop the abuse? How would he/her ever be able to retrieve an otherwise good reputation? Reviews are a bad idea.

    • Sara Bonert

      March 24, 2011 at 7:59 am

      The difference in what you describe here is that the person would be abusing the site’s terms of service by writing bogus reviews – so there would be much more of a case than someone stating their true, organic option online.

      With regards to the last statement of the blog post, a better counterpoint would be: if someone can be sued for negative statements, should they be rewarded for positive ones? (I say no to both.)

      • Sig

        March 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm

        You are right. you may have an easier time suing but the damage will have been done to your reputation. A law suite can’t change anything.

  8. MH for Movoto

    March 24, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Huh. Yeah, it doesn’t seem even remotely like that the doctor will win this case – but even if he does, it won’t help his local reputation one bit. Forest for the trees, man. Forest for the trees.

  9. Jeff Belonger

    March 24, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Scary scary scary… why can it be scary? Because the defendant would have to get a good lawyer and pay just to stop an idiot plantiff…. or if you have a plantiff with semi deep pockets, that can hurt any defendant.

    First off, it shouldn’t matter if one complains for the good or the bad, should anyone be able to sue. Not unless you can show and prove multiple attacks from the same person. If this person goes out and gets other friends to do it, now you need to check the IP addresses, to see if it might be the same person doing the dirty work.. or… that this person might be using other computers .. ie @ the library, and that they signed in with their own real name… so then you can prove it’s the same person or as stated, dig deeper to prove whose friends or family are doing what.

    The end result, we aren’t talking about a murder case.. but what sucks about online reviews, even if some of these sites claim to take all complaints seriously and look into them, before they are published… once on the net, it’s much harder to get off. And what if you have some site that doesn’t have the correct checks and balances when someone states a complaint…

    Overall, this whole thing could get ugly. We all know some people just complain to complain, especially when it’s not a valid complaint.. and that you are dealing with a chronic complainer… which would be the worse. Especially when someone doesn’t understand that business. aaarrggghhhh… I think reviews can be good, but I think the way the internet is heading, that we will see more bad reviews than good, because you can and because it’s easy. And as stated, what if you have a realtor that gets others to help and gang up on their competition? rut row…

  10. Jeff Belonger

    March 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    ps… in this case of the doctor, it sounds like a really terrible and stupid lawsuit.. and I agree, if you lose, you shall pay all costs and the defendants costs…

  11. Michael Erdman

    April 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I AM a lawyer, but would encourage most agents to resist the temptation to sue. More often than not this results in much more attention being given to the reviewer’s comments than otherwise would have been the case.

    While in cases involving entirely false/misleading statements that threaten real harm to an agent’s reputation might be different, in most cases it probably makes sense to first approach the website and/or reviewer to address the issue. If neither is willing to remove or modify the undeserved language, your next step should be writing a response that appears alongside/near the subject review (if possible).

    When responding, the importance of what you say is probably secondary to how you say it. You want readers (prospective clients) to come off thinking you are a stand up guy/gal who directly addressed the negative comments, admitted mistakes, and refrained from making things personal. The mere fact you respond demonstrates to readers you’re on the ball, and take your reputation seriously.

    In other words, turn it into an opportunity to shine.

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