The Supreme Court of the United States Denies Petition to Review the California Supreme Court’s Decision in Hassell v. Bird

Another win for Section 230 advocates. Back in July I wrote a blog post entitled “Section 230 is alive and well in California (for now) | Hassell v. Bird” which outlined the hotly contested, and widely watched, case that started back in 2014. When I wrote that post I left off saying that “the big question is where will things go from [there].” After all, we have seen, and continue to see, Section 230 come under attack for a host of arguably noble, yet not clearly thought through, reasons including sex-trafficking (resulting in FOSTA).

Many of us practitioners weren’t sure Hassell, after losing her case before the California Supreme Court as it pertained to Yelp, Inc., would actually appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. This was based upon the fact that: there has been a long line of cases across the country that have held that 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1) bars injunctive relief and other forms of liability against Internet publishers for third-party speech; that the U.S. Supreme Court denied another similar petition in not so distant past; and held many years prior, in Zenith Radio Corp. v. Hazeltine Research, Inc., 395 U.S. 100 (1969) that “[o]ne is not bound by a judgment in personam resulting from litigation in which he is not designated as a party or to which he has not been been made a party by service of process.”  

Clearly undeterred, in October of 2018 Hassell filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari and accompanying Appendix, challenging the California Supreme Court’s ruling, with the U.S. Supreme Court. Respondent, Yelp, Inc. filed its Opposition to the Petition for Writ of Certiorari in December of 2018. Hassell’s Reply in Support of the Petition was filed earlier this month and all the materials were distributed to the Justices to be discussed at the conference scheduled to be held on Friday, January 18, 2019. [I suppose it is good to see that the government shutdown didn’t kick this matter down the road.]

Many of us Section 230 advocates were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would surprise us by granting the Petition. Nevertheless, based upon today’s decision denying Hassell’s Petition it appears that this matter will, if ever, be reserved for another day and all is status quo with Section 230, for now.

Citations: Hassell v. Bird, 420 P.3d 776, 2018 WL 3213933 (Cal. Sup. Ct. July 2, 2018), cert. denied; Hassell v. Yelp, 2019 WL 271967 (U.S. Jan. 22, 2019)(No. 18- 506)

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The Ugly Side of Reputation Management: What Attorneys and Judges Need to Know

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was no such thing as the Internet.  Information and news came from your local newspaper, television, or radio channel.  Research was done in good old fashioned books, often at your local school, university or public library.  If the content you were seeking was “old” chances are you had to go look at microfiche. For those that are young enough to have no clue what I’m talking about, watch this video. Then BOOM! Along came the internet! Well, sort of.  It was a slow work in progress, but by 1995 the internet was fully commercialized here in the U.S.  Anyone else remember that horrible dial up sound followed by the coolest thing you ever heard in your life “You’ve got mail!“?

As technology and the internet evolved so did the ease of gathering and sharing information; not only by the traditional media, but by every day users of the internet.  I’ve dedicated an entire series of blogs called Fighting Fair on the Internet just to the topic of people’s online use.  Not every person who has access to the internet publishes flattering content (hello Free Speech) nor do they necessarily post truthful content (ewww, defamation).  Of course, not all unflattering content is defamatory, so it’s not illegal to be a crap talker, but some people try to overcome it anyway.  Either way, whether the information is true or false, such content has brought about a whole new industry for people and businesses looking for relief: reputation management.

Leave it to the entrepreneurial types to see a problem and find a lucrative solution to the same.  While there are always legitimate ethical reputation management companies and lawyers out there doing business the right way (and kudos to all of them)…there are those that are, shall we say, operating through more “questionable” means.  Those that want to push the ethical envelope often come up with “proprietary” methods to help clients which are often sold as removal or internet de-listing/de-indexing techniques that may include questionable defamation cases and court orders, use of bogus DMCA take down notices, or “black hat” methods.  In this article I am only going to focus on the questionable defamation cases that result in an order for injunctive relief.

BACKGROUND: QUESTIONABLE DEFAMATION CASES AND COURT ORDERS

UCLA Professor, Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen litigation attorney, Paul Alan Levy, started shedding public light on concerns relating to questionable court orders a few years ago.  In an amicus brief, submit to the California Supreme Court in support of Yelp, Inc. in Hassell v. BirdVolokh offered his findings to the court discussing how default proceedings are “far too vulnerable to manipulation to be trustworthy.”

As the brief says:

Injunctions aimed at removing or deindexing allegedly libelous material are a big practice area, and big business….But this process appears to be rife with fraud and with other behavior that renders it inaccurate. And this is unsurprising, precisely because many such injunctions are aimed at getting action from third parties (such as Yelp or Google) that did not appear in the original proceedings. The adversarial process usually offers some assurance of accurate fact finding, because the defendant has the opportunity and incentive to point out the plaintiff’s misstatements. But many of the injunctions in such cases are gotten through default judgments or stipulations, with no meaningful adversarial participation.

The brief further pointed to seven (7) different methods that plaintiffs were using to obtain default judgments:

(1) injunctions gotten in lawsuits brought against apparently fake defendants;

(2) injunctions gotten using fake notarizations;

(3) injunctions gotten in lawsuits brought against defendants who very likely did not author the supposedly defamatory material;

(4) injunctions that seek the deindexing of official and clearly nonlibelous government documents – with no notice to the documents’ authors – often listed in the middle of a long list of website addresses submitted to a judge as part of a default judgment;

(5) injunctions that seek the deindexing of otherwise apparently truthful mainstream articles from websites like CNN, based on defamatory comments that the plaintiffs or the plaintiffs’ agents may have posted themselves, precisely to have an excuse to deindex the article;

(6) injunctions that seek the deindexing of an entire mainstream media article based on the source’s supposedly recanting a quote, with no real determination of whether the source was lying earlier, when the article was written, or is lying now, prompted by the lawsuit;

(7) over 40 “injunctions” sent to online service providers that appear to be outright forgeries.

Well, isn’t that fun?  Months after the brief was filed in Hassell, Volokh published another article with the title “Solvera Group, accused by Texas AG of masterminding fake-defendant lawsuits, now being sued by Consumer Opinion over California lawsuits.”  What was clear from all of this is that website owners who have been victims of the scheme are likely watching and the authorities are too.  The US Attorney Generals office in the District of Rhode Island and the State of Texas both took interest in these situations…and I suppose it is possible that more will be uncovered as time goes on.

So how are these parties getting away with this stuff?  With the help of unscrupulous reputation management companies, associated defamation attorneys…and, unfortunately, trusting judges.  Some judges have taken steps to correct the problem once the issue was brought to their attention.  As for the attorneys involved, you have to wonder if they were actually “duped” as this Forbes article mentions or do they know what they are doing?  Either way, it’s not a good situation.  This isn’t to necessarily say that every attorney that is questioned about this stuff is necessarily guilty of perpetrating a fraud upon the court or anything like that.  However, it should serve as a cautionary warning that this stuff is real, these schemes are real, clients can be really convincing, and if one isn’t careful and fails to conduct appropriate and precautionary due diligence on a client and/or the documents provided to you by a client…it could easily be a slippery slope into Padora’s box.   After all, no one wants to be investigated by their state bar association (or worse) for being involved with this kind of mess.

Yes, there have been lots of great articles and discussion shedding light on the subject but the question then becomes, how do you tell the difference between a legitimate situation and a questionable situation?  The answer: recognize red flags and question everything.

RED FLAGS THAT SHOULD CAUSE YOU PAUSE

In December of 2016 I had the pleasure of traveling to Miami, FL for the Internet Lawyer Leadership Summit conference to present, for CLE, on multiple topics including this subject.  At that time I provided the group with some “red flags” based upon information I had then.  Since that time I have gained an even greater knowledge base on this subject simply by paying attention to industry issues and reading, a lot.  I have now compiled the following list of cautionary flags with some general examples, and practical advice that, at minimum, should have you asking a few more questions:

RED FLAGS FOR ATTORNEYS

  • If the entity or person feeding you the “lead” is in the reputation management industry.  You want to do some due diligence.  You could be dealing with a total above board individual or entity , and the lead may be 100% legit, BUT the industry seems to consist of multiple “companies” that often lead back to the same individual(s) and just because they are well known doesn’t necessarily mean they are operating above board.  Do your homework before you agree to be funneled any leads.
  • If the client is asking you to make some unusual adjustments to your fee agreement.  Your fee agreement is likely pretty static.  If the client is requesting some unusual adjustments to your agreement that make you feel uncomfortable, you might want to decline representation.
  • If the client already has “all of the documents” and you don’t actually deal with the defendant. We all want to trust our clients, but as some counsel already experienced, just accepting what your client tells you and/or provides you as gospel without a second thought can land you in hot water.  Consider asking to meet the defendant in person or have them appear before a person licensed to give an oath and check identification, such as a notary public of YOUR choosing to ensure the defendant is real and that the testimony that they are giving in the declaration or affidavit is real.  You want to make sure everything adds up and communication by telephone or email may not protect you enough.  When it comes to documents provided by the client, or the alleged post author, watch for the following:
    • Ensure that the address listed on any affidavit or other document isn’t completely bogus.  Run a search on Google – is it even a real address?  For all you know you could be getting an address to the local train track.
    • Ensure that any notary stamp on an affidavit is inconsistent with where the affiant purports to live. It will rarely make sense for an affiant list their address as, for example, Plains, New York but the notary stamp suggests the notary is based out of Sacramento, California. It will make even less sense if the affiant supposedly lives out of country, but is being notarized by a notary in the states.
    • Ensure that the notary is actually a real notary.  You can typically find record of notaries with the Secretary of State that the notary is in.  Make sure they are a real person.  If you really want to be sure that they actually signed your document, and that it wasn’t “lifted” from elsewhere (yay technology) check in with the notary and/or see if their records are on file somewhere publicly that you can check.
  • If the entity alleged to be the plaintiff isn’t actually a real entity in the state that they are purporting in the complaint to be from.  If the plaintiff is supposed to be ABC Ventures, LLC out of San Diego, California, there should be a record of ABC Ventures, LLC actually listed, and active, on the California Corporation Commission website.  The people that you are talking to also should, in theory, be the members/managers of such entity too.  For example, if you are always talking to a “secretary” you might want to insist on a more direct contact.
  • If the person or entity listed to be the plaintiff isn’t actually listed in the subject URL in the complaint.  If a plaintiff is going to bring a case, they should at least have standing to do so.  You should be cautious of any plaintiffs that aren’t actually at issue or fails to have a valid direct connection that would give them standing to bring the claim.
  • If the subject post doesn’t contain any defamatory statements in the first place.  Just because a post isn’t flattering doesn’t mean that it is actually defamatory.  Similarly, public documents aren’t typically seen as defamatory either. Who is saying it is false? Why is the statement false? What evidence supports the allegation that it is false?  
  • If the subject posting is outside of the statute of limitations for bringing claims in the state in which you intend on filing.  Now I know that some may disagree with me, and there may be bar opinions in different states that suggest otherwise, however, if you are presented with a post that is outside of the statute of limitations to bring a claim for defamation, subject to the single publication rule, and there is no real reason for tolling (like it was held in a secret document not generally public – which pretty much excludes the items on the internet) that may be of concern to you.  I wrote before on why statute of limitations is important, especially if you are the type to follow ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.1.  Even here in Arizona the bar has raised in disciplinary proceedings, in connection with other infractions, concerns about bringing claims outside of the statute of limitations, citing a violation of ER 8.4(d).  See generally, In re Aubuchon233 Ariz. 62 (Ariz. 2013).
  • If a case was filed in a wholly separate state from the Plaintiff and Defendant and you are asked to be “local counsel” to marshal documents to court or simply to submit it to a search engine like Google.  It is not improbable that local counsel will be called to assist with basic filings or to submit an order to Google.  It may be possible that such documents contain questionable materials.  It’s always a good idea to review the materials and give it a heightened level of scrutiny before just marshaling them off to the court or search engine.  This is especially true if the Plaintiff is no longer associated with prior counsel and is just looking for a different lawyer to help with this “one thing” as if a submission from an attorney bears more weight that anyone else submitting it.
  • If the plaintiff claims to already know who the author of a subject alleged defamatory post is, yet the post itself is anonymous.  Yes, it is possible that based on an author’s content, and how much detail is placed in such post, that one might be able to figure out who the author is. However, in my experience, many authors tend to write just vague enough to keep themselves anonymous.  If that is the case, without a subpoena to the content host, how does one actually know who the author is?  Some states like Arizona have specific notice requirements for subpoenas that are seeing identifying user information which require notice being posted in the same manner, through the same medium, in which the subject posting was made.  If a notice isn’t present on the website, there likely wasn’t a subpoena (assuming the website requires strict compliance with the law). Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe, 170 P.3d 712, 217 Ariz. 103 (Ariz. App., 2007).
  • If the case was settled in RECORD TIME.  Often these matters are being “resolved” within a few weeks to only a couple months.  As most of us know, the wheels of justice are SLOW.
  • If the case is settled without any answers or discovery being done.  This goes to my prior point about knowing who the real author is, or, for that matter, that the allegations in a subject post are even false.
  • If notice about the case was not personally served by a process server.  Many states allow certified mailing for service.  Do you really know who is signing that little green form and accepting service?  Was some random person paid to sign that?

RED FLAGS FOR JUDGES (Consider all of the above generally plus the following)

  • If a Complaint is filed and shortly thereafter a stipulated judgment is presented requesting injunctive relief without the defendant ever actually making an appearance.  This seems to be one of the more popular tactics.  A way to curb this kind of abuse would be to hold a hearing where all parties must appear, in person (especially the named defendant signing the stipulation) before the court before any such injunctive order is signed and entered.
  • If an attorney files an affidavit of making a good faith attempt in order to locate the defendant but discovery was never conducted upon the hosting website.  Many sites will respond to discovery so long as their state laws for obtaining such information (like Arizona’s Mobilisa case) is followed.  Arguably, it is disingenuous for an attorney to say they have tried when they really haven’t.  Chances are, the real author may not even know about the case and entering a default judgment under such circumstances deprives them of the opportunity to appear and defend against the matter.
  •  If you order the parties to appear and then suddenly the case gets dismissed.  It thwarts the scheme when the court requests the parties to appear.  If this happens, in a defamation related case, it could be seen as a red flag.  The plaintiff may very well try to dismiss the action and simply refile under a different plaintiff and defendant name but for the same URL that was originally filed in the prior dismissed action.
  • If the order for injunctive relief contains URLs that were not originally part of the Complaint.  Sneaky plaintiffs and their counsel may attempt to include other postings, from the same or different websites, that are not really at issue and/or that were arguably written by other individuals.  Make sure that the URLs listed on the order are all the same as what is listed on the complaint.
  • If the complaint contains a host of posts, with wide range of dates, and the syntax of the posts are different yet the plaintiff claims that it was written by the same person.  In my experience, very rarely (though it does happen) will one person go on a binge and write a bunch of different posts about one person or entity.  There are typically more than one author involved so if any statement to the alternative should raise a red flag.

Some journalists that have been tracking these kinds of matters think that these schemes may be nearing an end.  I would like to think so, however, in my opinion these problems are far from over unless unsuspecting attorneys, judges, and even websites and search engines get a little more cautious about how they process these court orders for content removal, especially if they are older orders.  I have already discussed why I thought search engine de-indexing isn’t necessarily a viable reputation management solution and in part that is because, arguably, at least for now, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act  bars injunctive relief, i.e., there is no obligation for websites to remove content anyway.  If a platform or search engine decides to remove content or otherwise de-index content, at least here in the U.S., they are doing so based upon their own company policy…not some legal duty.

In a perfect world none of these issues would exist. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in and the best we can do is be vigilant. Hopefully, through this article, I have provided some food for thought for attorneys and judges alike. You never know when such a situation will arise.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

Legal fees: 7 ways that YOU may be contributing to a higher legal bill

No one loves legal fees and with the advent of the internet, and all of these “free” forms and information online that people now have access to, many lay people seem to think that paying for a lawyer’s time is overrated or that you could have obtained the same information elsewhere for a fraction of the cost. If you are starting with that mindset, you are setting yourself up to be frustrated with your lawyer and with the inevitable bill. If that is you, save yourself and your potential lawyer some aggravation…don’t engage an attorney. Take your chances with whatever you can find online, which may or may not be right for you and your situation, and run with it. No, really. It’s not with the frustration for either of you. No business, lawyers/law firms included, want to deal with a disgruntled client/customer that is going to nickel and dime them because they think they could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. There may always be someone “better qualified” or “cheaper” although the two don’t usually coincide with one another. The question then becomes, can you have a good working relationship with your lawyer? That’s what you really want.

If you do decide to move forward with an attorney, understand that there are things that YOU might do that can make your lawyer bill even more expensive:

1) Thinking that your situation is “simple” and being stuck in that mindset even when you are told that your situation isn’t “simple.” The matter may be simple to you, but that’s because you aren’t going to think of all the same things your lawyer is. Most matters are far more complex than what a client thinks it is. The more complex a matter is or the more complex the lawyer says it is, the higher the bill will likely be. Expect it.

2) Taking a free legal template document (which is SO basic it that it likely doesn’t actually cover what you need to accomplish your goals) and asking a lawyer to review it. Chances are, no lawyer is going to look at that and think that it is a legal masterpiece; but you are going to pay them to look at it anyway, and it’s likely going in the garbage. If that is where you are starting, you are better off asking the lawyer to draft and agreement or other legal document from scratch. At least then you aren’t paying for their time to read something that they likely won’t use in the first place.

3) Not being forthcoming with information to begin with. You have to remember that your attorney doesn’t know the matter or the parties like you do. It is up to you to help get your attorney up to speed on all the specifics and timely provide them with the information they request. You also have to remember that if your attorney’s job is to help protect you from some other party or risk, they are going to assume, and try to prepare for, the very worst. If you have a good lawyer, they are likely going to dig and ask questions to help them do that. Some questions you may not be comfortable answering but it is best to answer them anyway because if you don’t, and your attorney is suspicious of the situation, they will dig for themselves and you will be expected to pay for their digging.

4) Providing hasty inadequate answers to, or otherwise failing to actually address, your lawyer’s questions. If a lawyer doesn’t feel they are getting the whole story, a good one will dig for more information to find the answers to their questions and it will likely be done at your expense. It’s better to be forthcoming and provide as much information as is requested or possible (it’s better to over disclose than under disclose) and provide such information in a methodical and organized manner as you can. Don’t just dump a bunch of papers in a box and say “Here ya go!” Your lawyer will charge you the time it takes to organize all of the materials.

5) Providing incorrect answers to your lawyer’s questions. A good lawyer will trust the information they are given but will also verify the information provided. If your attorney finds even one answer wrong/inconsistent from prior statements given to them, they are not going to trust what you (or whoever) are telling them and will have to verify all of the information given to them. You should always back up your statements with the documents supporting your statements. The more time your lawyer has to spend verifying the accuracy of the information that has been provided, the bigger the bill.

6) Not heeding warnings and advice of your lawyer. A lawyer can never protect you from all risk, but they can tell you when there are major red flags and discuss ways to avoid it. Asking your lawyer to move forward, especially when you want to be cutting corners on recommended due diligence, increases the risk of the transaction or situation and also makes the attorneys job 10 times harder than it needs to be. This is because without the proper information they have to try to plan for, and anticipate, all of the unknowns. The longer and harder your lawyer has to think, especially where there are unknowns, the higher the bill is likely to be.

7) Being “needy.” Attorneys aren’t often called “counselors” for nothing. Many situations can be very emotional and often people want to rely on their attorney for emotional support, a safe ear, and a constant source of reassurance. It happens to the best of us! At the same time, if you are the type of person that desires a lot of interaction and attention from your attorney, you should plan on and be prepared for, a higher bill. Why? Well, you have to think that even though you are a valuable client, chances are, your lawyer has other clients and projects. If they are in the middle of a project, and you call or keep sending text messages or emails, that interrupts their train of thought and their attention is diverted to you. Your attorney has to reorient their brain to address your call, text or email and then, when they are done with your matter, they have to again reorient their brain back to whatever it was they were working on and try to figure out where they were. It can be much like working from home when you have a few small, and unattended, children. The time that they give you to vent, be it on the phone, text or via multiple emails, and the time it takes them to reorient themselves back to their prior project, may very well end up on your bill and you should expect it. Just assume a .1, at least, to be on your bill, for every communication you initiate. Your attorney may be kind and write off some time, but you shouldn’t expect it.  Think about it…would you go to work and then tell your boss to deduct money from your pay check even though you spent time on work projects for your boss?

Lawyers can be expensive but you can lessen the financial burden by giving a little more consideration to how you interact with your lawyer. The more work or hand-holding they have to do, the bigger your bill will likely be, regardless of how “simple” you think a task. Help them, help you.

All information contained in this blog (www.beebelawpllc.blog.com) is meant to be for general informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as legal advice or relied upon.  All legal questions should be directed to a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.