Internet Law

Lawyer can't learn identity of anonymous Avvo critic absent defamation evidence, appeals court says

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A Florida lawyer hoping to unmask an anonymous critic on Avvo isn’t entitled to identifying information absent any evidence supporting her defamation claim, an appeals court in Washington state has ruled.

The decision (PDF) on Monday against lawyer Deborah Thomson is a victory for the First Amendment and lawyer Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen, who argued the case on behalf of the “Jane Doe” reviewer, according to a Public Citizen press release and a post by Levy on Public Citizen’s Consumer Law and Policy blog.

The court said a motion to reveal an anonymous reviewer “has First Amendment consequences” and a defamation plaintiff should have to provide supporting evidence before a speaker is unmasked.

Levy wrote that the decision “embraces a broad consensus” among courts in such cases that plaintiffs seeking a reviewer’s identity “must both provide notice to the speakers and present evidence of wrongdoing, for example evidence of falsity if the claim is one for defamation, instead of resting on general allegations.”

Thomson had sued Jane Doe for defamation in Florida, and sought to enforce a subpoena to learn Doe’s identity in Washington, where Avvo is based. Thomson did not submit a declaration, affidavit or any other evidence in support of the motion to compel.

Thomson was suing over a review that read: “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 that are critical to the division of assets in any divorce proceeding. In fact, she did not subpoena any documents at all. My interests were simply not protected in any meaningful way.”

Thomson had asserted that the reviewer was not a client and the post was designed to impugn her reputation. An Avvo official who contacted the reviewer countered that reviewer appeared to be a client based on information he or she provided.

Related article: “Florida lawyer asks appeals court to unmask anonymous Avvo reviewer”

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