In California, the right to leave anonymous online reviewers is not absolute. In a recent case, Yelp Inc. v. Superior Court, a panel of the California Court of Appeal ordered Yelp to disclose the identity of an anonymous reviewer to the reviewed business.
In that case, Gregory Montagna, an accountant, filed a lawsuit against Sandra Jo Nunis claiming that Nunis wrote a defamatory review about his tax preparation services using the pseudonym Alex M. Montagna alleged that the review falsely stated or implied that he charged more than a quoted price without justification and that the tax return was so poorly prepared it had to be redone by another accountant.
Montagna subpoenaed Yelp to provide documents to confirm that Nunis was the author of the review or to otherwise reveal the identity of the author. Yelp refused to comply with the subpoena arguing that it violated the free speech rights of Alex M.
The Court acknowledged that a speaker has a First Amendment right to remain anonymous. However, it held that the right to remain anonymous will be superseded when a plaintiff shows that he or she has a meritorious claim. Montagna provided evidence that the statements in the review went beyond opinion and implied false statements of fact. This was enough for the Court to order Yelp to provide the requested documents.
Reviewers should exercise caution when writing online reviews. If their statements cross the line into potential defamation, they cannot rely on anonymity to shield them from liability.
On the other hand, businesses should think twice before filing a lawsuit over a review. Defamation lawsuits can be subject to an early motion to strike for attempting to stifle a reviewer’s free speech rights. If the motion is successful, the case will be dismissed and the plaintiff must pay the defendant’s attorneys’ fees.