Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Online Comments Lead to Suit Against Two Former Clients

Angela Morris of Texas Lawyer recently wrote about a bellweather case involving an Austin bankruptcy lawyer who filed suit against two former clients who allegedly wrote negative online reviews about her after she represented them in filing for bankruptcy.

In both suits, Susan Taylor claims her clients went online and published "false" and "defamatory" statements that were meant to harm her personal and professional reputation.
Taylor says almost 100 percent of her clients come from Internet referrals, and she believes the two clients' negative online reviews harmed her business.

"Young people today think they own the Web and they can say anything, even if it's false, and they can try to ruin a businessperson," Taylor says, adding, "When something is totally groundless, and someone is trying to destroy my livelihood, I try to respond."

She filed suit against K.C. Mercer on April 30, claiming she assisted Mercer in a bankruptcy case and "completed all of the legal work," says the original petition in Taylor v. Mercer , filed in Travis County's 126th District Court. But later, Taylor "had to terminate the attorney client relationship for nonpayment" and Mercer then used "to make libelous statements." [See the petition.]
"Specifically, Defendant made claims Ms. Taylor fails to adequately advise and counsel her clients during their respective bankruptcy proceedings; she and her staff act unprofessionally; and warns other potential clients not to hire her," alleges the petition.

Taylor alleges the statements are false, Mercer "has a history of placing defamatory statements on the internet," and that she "communicated to third persons the same or similar defamatory remarks."
The lawyer's suit against another client contains similar allegations. According to the petition in Taylor v. Sims , filed April 2 in Travis County's 345th District Court, Taylor filed client Zanetria Sims' bankruptcy case in August 2011 and "successfully obtained a Chapter 7 Discharge" in November 2011.

After the bankruptcy, Taylor alleges Sims used and and "made claims that Ms. Taylor fails to adequately advise and counsel her clients … and that potential clients seeking such services should avoid her practice and seek representation elsewhere." Taylor claims Sims also communicated the statements to third parties.

In the suits against both Mercer and Sims, Taylor brings causes of action for: slander and libel, defamation, negligence and gross negligence, intentional infliction of mental anguish, tortious interference with prospective business relations and business disparagement. Taylor's suit against Mercer has an additional cause of action for fraud. In both suits, Taylor seeks actual damages, exemplary damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, costs, attorney's fees and injunctive relief.
On April 12, 201st District Judge Amy Clark Meachum granted Taylor a temporary restraining order that orders Sims to refrain from publishing further statements, and to remove the existing statements. A judge scheduled a temporary-injunction hearing on April 25, but as of presstime, there was no temporary-injunction order in court records.

Coping with negative reviews

Legal-consultant Debra Bruce, who advises lawyers on social media use, says filing suit over a negative online review may attract publicity and exacerbate the problem.
"Because these lawsuits are still kind of new and people are really focusing on social media, and wondering how to deal with things, it just ends up getting a lot of attention," says Bruce, president of Lawyer-Coach in Houston.

She says a negative review can actually be "a good thing" because it gives "credibility to positive reviews."

Bruce notes if a lawyer responds to a negative review, it's best to acknowledge without arguing that the reviewer wasn't satisfied and to take the conversation offline by asking the person to call the lawyer to address the issue.

But Taylor says she tried sending cease-and-desist letters and even offering money to resolve the negative-review matters before she filed suit.

"Who wants to be a plaintiff or defendant? I think it's awful to be either. It's a last resort," she says, noting, "If I had done anything wrong, I would try to make it right. But there was nothing wrong to right. These were just vindictive people lashing out unjustly."

No comments: