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AVVO Beware! Lawyer Succeeds in Action Against Former Client for Internet Defamation

The internet has changed the legal profession, mostly for the better. In one particular way, however, the internet presents a┬áhazard for lawyers. That is, some former clients now use AVVO and other review websites to create settlement leverage against the lawyer to waive the lawyer’s outstanding attorney-fee balance. The client accomplishes this leverage by threatening to make, or actually making, a negative post against the lawyer. As such, this situation presents a dilemma for the lawyer on whether to pursue the outstanding fees against the client and deal with the consequences of a negative review.

While lawyers cannot prevent a former client from exercising his or her free speech rights on a review website, the lawyer can take action against a former client for defamatory statements. Indeed, this was the situation in Blake v. Ann-Marie Giustibelli, P.A., 182 So.3d 881 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016), a fee dispute that arose out of a divorce case between a family lawyer and her former client. In the case, the court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in a bench trial that $350,000 was an appropriate award against the former client and her ex-husband, both of whom defamed the lawyer in several online reviews.

In the case, the court distinguished pure opinions from false statements of fact and stated the following about the former client and her ex-husband’s online reviews: “Here, all the reviews contained allegations that Giustibelli [lawyer] lied to Blake [client] regarding the attorney’s fee. Two of the reviews contained the allegation that Giustibelli falsified a contract. These are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false.”

On this basis, the court rejected the former client and ex-husband’s free-speech, pure-opinion defense to the lawyer’s defamation claim. The court held: “[A]n action for libel will lie for a ‘false and unprivileged publication by letter, or otherwise, which exposes a person to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy or which causes such person to be avoided, or which has a tendency to injure such person in [their] office, occupation, business or employment’.”

The court further rejected the argument that libel per se no longer exists as a cause of action in Florida and held that per se claims are only unavailable in cases against media defendants, not private parties.

So what are the implications of the Blake case for client-lawyer disputes? Former clients should beware that when they make false statements about their lawyers in an online review, they can be subject to a large judgment for defamation. As for lawyers, while the Blake case provides a remedy for lawyers to pursue a former client who defames the lawyer with false statements of fact, or mixed questions of fact and opinion, no action would be available for a negative review based upon “pure opinion” alone.

Accordingly, lawyers are always better off resolving fee disputes with their former clients without litigation. While the lawyer in the Blake case ended up with a judgment against her former client, the lawyer would have been better off if the incident had not occurred in the first place. Moreover, there is no assurance the former client will have sufficient assets to satisfy a defamation judgment.

In sum, lawyers should always try to resolve fee and other disputes with former clients. In situations that mushroom into defamatory reviews against the lawyer, however, the Blake case now provides the lawyer with a remedy to fight back against false and unfair online reviews.

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