A divorce lawyer in Florida was awarded $350,000 in punitive damages for false statements made by a former client who was unhappy with the services she received from her lawyer.
Both the client and her ex-husband posted comments on multiple websites which read:
“This lawyer represented me in my divorce. She was combative and explosive and took my divorce to a level of anger which caused major suffering of my minor children. She insisted I was an emotionally abused wife who couldn’t make rational decisions which caused my case to drag on in the system for a year and a half so her FEES would continue to multiply!! She misrepresented her fees with regards to the contract I initially signed. The contract she submitted to the courts for her fees were 4 times her original quote and pages of the original had been exchanged to support her claims, only the signature page was the same. Shame on me that I did not have an original copy, but like an idiot . . . I trusted my lawyer. Don’t mistake sincerity for honesty because I assure you, that in this attorney’s case, they are NOT the same thing. She absolutely perpetuates the horrible image of attorneys who are only out for the money and themselves. Although I know this isn’t the case and there are some very good honest lawyers out there, Mrs. G. is simply not one of the “good ones. Horrible horrible experience. Use anyone else, it would have to be a better result.”
“I accepted an initial VERY fair offer from my ex. Mrs. G. convinced me to “crush” him and that I could have permanent etc. Spent over a year (and 4 times her original estimate) to arrive at the same place we started at. Caused unnecessary chaos and fear with my kids, convinced me that my ex cheated (which he didn’t), that he was hiding money (which he wasn’t), and was mad at ME when I realized her fee circus had gone on long enough and finally said “stop”. Altered her fee structures, actually replaced original documents with others to support her charges and generally gave the kind of poor service you only hear about. I’m not a disgruntled ex-wife. I’m just the foolish person who believes that a person’s word should be backed by integrity. Not even remotely true in this case. I’ve had 2 prior attorneys and never ever have I seen ego and monies be so blatantly out of control.”
Both the client and her ex-husband appealed the damage award, however, just before the appeal was to be heard the ex-husband withdrew his appeal saying that he had settled the matter with the attorney.
His ex-wife however, did not abandon her appeal and the appellate court remarked that even if she had, they would not have dismissed the appeal, because it raised an important issue with respect to free speech protections vis a vis reviews of professional services posted on the internet. The court said the issue merited discussion as it presented a scenario that would likely occur again.
At trial, both defendants admitted they had posted the online reviews. The evidence at trial included a written retainer agreement signed by the attorney’s client which proved that the lawyer had not charged her four times more than what was quoted in the agreement, a fact both defendants later admitted.
If a statement is true it will not be defamatory, but in this case the alleged overcharging was a falsehood. It simply wasn’t true. The appeal court rejected the defendant’s suggestion that their rights of free speech protected them from voicing their “opinion” online.
The court disagreed saying:
“An action for libel will lie for a ‘false and unprivileged publication by letter, or otherwise, which exposes a person to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy or which causes such person to be avoided, or which has a tendency to injure such person in [their] office, occupation, or business….”
The lesson here is to think twice before you publicly criticize a service provider, but if you feel compelled to do so, you better be sure you can prove your comments are true.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee