Closing arguments are expected Friday in the case of a Fairfax woman being sued for $750,000 after posting negative reviews of a contractor on Yelp and Angie’s list.
The case began Monday before Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David S. Schell, who asked attorneys on both sides to offer their closing arguments by the end of the week.
The woman, Jane Perez, hired a former high school classmate of hers — Christopher Dietz of Washington, D.C. — to do some contracting work in her townhome in 2011, according to court records. The work included electrical, plumbing and general handyman work.
Perez’s one-out-of-five-stars Yelp review included two paragraphs in which she claimed Dietz’s work left her home worse for wear, stating her “home was damaged” and there was “work that had to be redone for thousands of dollars more…” She also claimed Dietz was not licensed to work in Virginia and that “…jewelry was found missing from my home and this contractor had the only extra key.” She also wrote that she had won by “summary judgment” a $9,000 court case in which Dietz had sued her for nonpayment.
In 2012, Dietz filed a preliminary injunction against Perez to remove her reviews in their entirety.
“It never happened, I didn’t damage her home,” he testified during a Dec. 5, 2012, hearing on the injunction.
“I will grant your motion for a preliminary injunction on the discussion of the loss of the jewelry,” ruled Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Thomas A. Fortkort at the end of that hearing. “The only real inference that you can make from that is that the probable suspect is the Plaintiff in the case. The damage to him is far greater than the damage to her for furthering that particular story.”
Fortkort also stipulated that “the Defendant shall remove any post that refers to the ‘loss of jewelry’ and modify any post that refers to ‘summary judgment.’”
Fortkort’s ruling was later overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court. The Yelp review in its entirety remains online. “We felt the injunction was a violation of the First Amendment,” said Paul Alan Levy of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represented Perez in a petition for review of Fortkort’s ruling before the Virginia Supreme Court. “The judge construed the jewelry statement as an accusation of Dietz, and that was not exactly what she said.”
In the current case before Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge David S. Schell, Dietz claims that before Perez’s review, his eight-year-old contracting business had a good reputation and that the review has so far cost him $300,000 in business, and “taken a toll” on him as a result.
“Many First Amendment attorneys are watching this case,” said Levy. “The outcome could have an impact on the future of online reviews. Not many people know this, but if you own your own home you can add a comprehensive rider to cover libel for just this sort of thing. It generally doesn’t cost more than $200-300 a year, which is a lot less than hiring an attorney.”
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