by Paul Alan Levy
You can’t live in the DC area and not encounter the pervasive advertising for Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, from mailed coupons and display advertising in the Washington Post that promise unbelievably low prices, to classic rock broadcast from the “Hadeed.com Studios” and advertising during Washington Capitals games. But regular users of pages about Hadeed on the Yelp web site quickly learn Hadeed’s dirty secret — more than thirty of the eighty-odd reviews posted there complain that the advertised prices are routinely not honored.
Even one of Hadeed’s Yelp admirers, who gave Hadeed four of five stars for the quality of its work, ridiculed the complainers in these terms: “I can give a life lesson to the people who only wanted the $99 special, there is no such thing! Every wall to wall cleaning company uses that as a way to lure you in but no one will charge you $99.” She also gives her secret about how to protect against unannounced price increases from Hadeed: pay in advance!
Apparently hoping to deter further criticism, Hadeed has singled out seven anonymous reviewers as defendants in a defamation lawsuit. It does not deny that its service staff routinely demand higher-than-advertised prices when they show up to do the work, but instead claims that it suspects, based on a mysterious review of some customer database, that these seven reviews were really posted by some unnamed competitor. Unlike some other ISP’s lately, Yelp is standing up for its users’ privacy, and so refused to comply with a Virginia subpoena because (among other reasons) Hadeed never provided any evidence that the gist of the reviews was false. Hadeed moved to compel compliance, and the trial judge, refusing to apply the otherwise-broadly-accepted Dendrite test, ordered compliance because it felt that it was enough for Hadeed to show that the statements “may be tortious.” And when Yelp refused to comply – because Virginia requires non-party discovery recipients to commit contempt of court to get the right to appeal — the court found it in contempt.
In an appellate brief that we have filed today on behalf of Yelp, we make two basic points. First, Virginia should agree with other states that demand both a legal and a factual showing that the lawsuit has merit. In that regard, read carefully, Hadeed’s defamation claim asserts only that the individual reviewers were not really customers, and Hadeed is not defamed by false statements about whether a given defendant was a customer. Nor, indeed, has Hadeed offered any reason to credit its supposition that the seven reviewers were not customers; what evidence there is in the record points in the other direction.
We also argue that a California company like Yelp should not be subject to a Virginia subpoena just because its web site is accessible in Virginia and because Virginia companies like Hadeed advertise on the web site. When AOL was based in Virginia, litigants in other states had to get Virginia subpoenas to demand identifying information about AOL users; by the same token, Hadeed should have to use the normal interstate discovery procedures when it wants identifying information about Yelp users from ISP's in other states.