In a precedent-setting case, a Washington appellate court will decide whether a Florida divorce lawyer should be permitted to unmask an anonymous critic on AVVO, a Seattle-based website designed to allow users to find and rate lawyers.
Read Public Citizen’s Response Brief in Thomson v. Doe
The court will consider, for the first time in this state, what protections to give anonymous online reviewers. Public Citizen urged the court to adopt a strong standard used around the country to make sure that anonymous online critics keep their First Amendment right to post negative reviews online.
The case stems from a series of reviews that appeared on Yelp, Google and Avvo in September 2013 saying that Tampa attorney Deborah Thomson had done a poor job of handling a divorce. Thomson filed suit against the critics on May 21, 2014, in Hillsborough County, Fla., alleging defamation.
Is the online commenter a fraud?
The negative post in question appears on Avvo:
Things to consider
I am still in court five years after Ms. Thomson represented me during my divorce proceedings. Her lack of basic business skills and detachment from her fiduciary responsibilities has cost me everything. . She failed to show up for a nine hour mediation because she had vacation days. She failed to subpoena documents..More
Deborah L. Thomson’s response: “The writer of this review was not an actual client of mine. This is a personal attack from someone that I know.
- The writer alleges that I represented her more than five years ago. Five years ago, I was employed by a law firm, and any cases were not my own.
- The court has procedural safeguards to ensure that a case does not drag on for a significant amount of time, and alleging that a case is still going on for over five years is absurd.
- If this was an actual case and was still going on five years after representing a person, my involvement would have been far removed.
- A mediation would not occur if the attorney did not show up. Mediations are not scheduled for a specific amount of time, as indicated in the review.
- I had a different last name at this time, and an actual client would not have referred to me as Ms. Thomson. Unfortunately, AVVO does not verify the information contained in a negative client review, nor does it verify that a person was, in fact, an actual client, before allowing it to post on an attorney’s profile.”
Seeking a subpoena
Thomson then went to court in Washington state (where Avvo is based) to seek a subpoena to learn the identity of the critic who had posted on Avvo.
Although 12 states and the District of Columbia, as well as many federal courts, have adopted standards that provide strong First Amendment protections to anonymous online reviewers, state courts in Washington have not yet set a standard. Thomson did not seek a subpoena in California, where Yelp and Google are based, and a state that has a strong protective standard.
A Washington trial court rejected Thomson’s request for a subpoena, and she appealed. Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy, who is representing critic Jane Doe on appeal, will urge the appellate court to require people who seek to identify online critics to provide proof that the criticisms are false and defamatory. Levy’s work on other cases throughout the country helped create the standard he will be advocating.
The case is Deborah Thomson, Appellant, v. Jane Doe et al., Respondent, Case No. 72321-9, Court of Appeals of the State of Washington, Division I.
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