Class Action Defense
Consumer Who Was Sued over Critical Online Reviews Succeeds with Anti-SLAPP Motion| Thursday, May 24, 2012
In a recent case in Texas state court, an online lending company, American Heritage Capital (AHC), asserted an Internet defamation claim against a loan applicant. The applicant, Dinah Gonzalez, had posted several critical reviews about AHC on various websites after Gonzalez was informed that she was eligible for a loan, but then suddenly rejected. Gonzalez took her dissatisfaction to several online review sites and described her frustration with AHC and its loan application process. Soon after, AHC discovered these reviews and began harassing Gonzalez to remove the posts. When Gonzalez refused to remove the posts, AHC filed a lawsuit against her, asserting claims for defamation and tortious interference with prospective business relationships.
Gozalez sought to dismiss the action as a SLAPP suit and to recover her attorneys’ fees. The court found that a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP) is a lawsuit that intimidates or bullies dissenters or critics from voicing opinions or complaints. Businesses or law firms that lodge such tenuous suits do not expect to follow through with usual case proceedings, but to bury their opposition with legal costs and obligations until they abandon or discontinue their dissent. Filing a lawsuit like this represents an immaterial expense on big business, but can quickly become a tremendous burden for an individual, and they are common Internet lawsuits.
The Court further found that Dinah Gonzalez took to writing negative reviews on the Internet as a way to express her displeasure with AHC. Her reviews described her poor experience with the company and sought to expose its deceptive business practices. AHC threatened Gonzalez in an effort to remove the critical reviews including by emailing her menacing notes, such as “You started this. You can end it. Otherwise I will end it for you, and it won’t be pretty.”
The Texas court found that when AHC’s threats failed, it abused the legal system to force Gonzalez to remove her posts. AHC’s efforts ultimately backfired. The presiding judge ruled in favor of the Gonzalez’s motion to dismiss and ordered the AHC to pay all attorneys’ fees and court costs incurred, relying on the Texas anti-SLAPP law.