Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen fame is one of those lawyers I’ve long admired and, sometimes, envied. He gets to spend his days taking on good causes for no better reason than they’re good causes. For those of us who need to earn a living, the romanticism of representing for no better reason than because it’s right is the stuff of dreams. And thankfully, there are guys like Paul around to do what they do.
When Paul took on the cause of Jennifer Choi, who was sued by Phoenix auto repair shop ToyoMotors for being dissatisfied with them, he stood on high ground.
In mid-2009, Jennifer Choi posted a scathing Yelp review of a Phoenix repair shop called ToyoMotors, contending that her car was diagnosed as needing repairs that other shops assured her were unnecessary, and that its fees were excessive by comparison with its competitors. Four years later, ToyoMotors went on the offensive. It signed on with “Demand Force,” a digital marketing operation that elicits positive feedback from customers to spray around the Internet. A look at ToyoMotors’ page on DemandForce reveals a feel-good version of Yelp, featuring a slew of positive reviews, the sort of web page we would see more often if the recent European Court of Justice decision, allowing people to purge the web of unfavorable information they would like to be forgotten, were to take hold in the United States.
That business reviews have become a cottage industry, with paid-for reviews from boiler rooms in Bangalore and “incentives” offered to customers to be nicer than they might otherwise be, is nothing new. People love to check out reviews before using a company or buying a product, and companies want their online image to shine, regardless of how scummy they may be in real life. Even lawprofs suffer the sting of negative reviews, which wouldn’t be a problem, except when they’re lies!!!
This assault on negative reviews presents a problem for anyone who tries to be honest in their assessment. A review is an opinion, a personal assessment of fact through the eyes of a user or customer. If a business’ reputation is strong, then a few negative reviews won’t hurt it. But if a company fears the truth, then it gets some serious butthurt from a negative review and lashes out.
By suing a reviewer, it raises the price of negativity well above the reviewer’s interest level, and that’s the point. No one will post a negative review if they fear being sued, with its costs in terms of time, money and angst. Of course, a federal Anti-SLAPP law might help, but we don’t have one.
That’s where a guy like Paul Alan Levy comes into play. Where someone like Choi might find herself unable to afford a defense, someone like Paul fills the void. And if companies lose enough, get smacked around enough, learn the deepest meaning of the Streisand Effect for suing people for not loving them, perhaps the lesson will sink in that the solution to a negative review is not to provide lousy service. So Paul put on his White Knight suit and went to work.
Among the many flaws in the suit, ToyoMotors waited years before commencing the action. Arizona, like most states, has a one-year statute of limitations on defamation, and a single publication rule. As Choi’s negative review was first published in 2009, they were way late. So Paul did what any reasonable lawyer would do, he contacted ToyoMotor’s legal braintrust, Robert Lewis of the Lewis & Pokora firm.
I tried to ask ToyoMotors’ counsel, Robert Lewis, about the apparent flaws in his complaint, but when I got him on the telephone he started exclaiming loudly about how he might sue me for defamation (assuming that I might make false statements) or extortion (if my statements were accurate), and threatening to file a bar complaint against me (apparently, for unauthorized practice of law in Arizona).
This may come as a shock to some, but lawyers suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect just like anyone else. And contrary to popular belief, listening to another lawyer bluster loses its charm after about 10 seconds.
Or as Mike Masnick explained at Techdirt, about Lewis’ bizarre defamation threat to Paul :
In general, this is probably not the best way to respond to a lawyer calling you up to ask some basic questions about a lawsuit you’ve filed. More specifically, it seems exceptionally preposterous to do that to Paul Levy, recently described in a glowing profile as “the web bully’s worst enemy.”
Choi still needs a local lawyer, as Paul is in Washington, D.C., and doesn’t practice in Phoenix. So if there is someone with a few hours to spare and a desire to be part of the solution, this would be a good opportunity to be like Paul Alan Levy and help someone just because it’s right. The downside is you might have to speak with Lewis, but then if he persists in behaving like an ass, you could always leave him a negative Yelp review.