First Amendment

Lawyer can't sue over poor Avvo rating and allegedly incorrect bar status, federal judge rules

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Updated: A federal judge in Seattle has tossed a lawyer’s $1.5 million defamation lawsuit against Avvo for allegedly posting false information that made him look “terrible.”

U.S. District Judge James L. Robart of the Western District of Washington dismissed lawyer Andrew U.D. Straw’s claims for defamation, tortious interference with contractual relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and disability discrimination.

Bloomberg Law has coverage and provides the opinion, which was decided Aug. 26 and filed Aug. 27.

Straw took issue with two Avvo statements. The first was his then-Avvo rating of 3.1 out of 10. The second was an allegedly false description of Straw’s Virginia bar status as “not active but disabled.”

Straw had alleged that the low rating was a result of collusion between Avvo and the state of Indiana regarding a recent disciplinary action, according to Robart’s opinion. Straw maintained Indiana wrongly disciplined him for allegedly frivolous filings and discriminated against him in the process.

Virginia concluded that he did not deserve to be disciplined, but that information was not on his Avvo profile, Straw said.

Robart concluded that Straw couldn’t sue for defamation over a low Avvo rating because ratings are a statement of opinion protected by the First Amendment. Nor could Straw sue over the alleged false statement about the Virginia bar license because he did not adequately plead damages, Robart said.

Straw had alleged that Avvo’s statements about the license were defamatory per se, which meant that he didn’t have to show actual damages. But Robart said Straw’s claims would fail under that standard because he would have to show that the statements were made with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.

Robart dismissed the tortious interference claim because Straw didn’t identify specific parties who did not contract with him after visiting Avvo. Robart dismissed the emotional distress claim because Avvo’s alleged conduct doesn’t rise to the level of “outrageous and extreme.” And Robart tossed the claim for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because of a lack of specifics.

Robart said he would allow Straw to amend the complaint “out of an abundance of caution.”

“While the judge dismissed my case against Avvo, he was kind enough to let me amend, and I have now done so,” Straw told the ABA Journal in an email Saturday. “There are problems with Avvo placing false information about bar status, which they are in the business of checking, and I proved Avvo knew the status for me was false, more likely than not, for four years. This seriously hurts an attorney because practicing law without a license is a crime in Virginia.

“The rating may be immune from defamation analysis, but it certainly is a mathematical calculation using bar status, Avvo admits, and this can demonstrate malice in a number of tort contexts. From 2016 to 2019, the largest directory of American lawyers falsely listed me as unable to practice law when I was in fact active in good standing. This hurt me, and I want the judge to see this, along with other lawyers.”

An online resumé for Straw describes him as an experienced attorney and disability rights advocate. The resumé lists a case against the American Bar Association under the headline “Significant Settlements & Achievements.”

Straw says he filed two suits against the ABA, and the one that settled involved termination of his membership. Straw says he received a small settlement. The other suit asked the ABA to require law schools to collect information on students’ disabilities.

Updated Aug. 29 at 2:30 p.m. to include the comments from Straw. Corrected Sept. 24 at 12:24 p.m to report that Straw filed two lawsuits against the ABA, and the one that settled involved termination of his membership.

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