Carpet Cleaner Lawsuit Could Unmask Anonymous Yelp Users

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht

A Virginia court sided with a carpet cleaning service, which demanded review website Yelp hand over the identifying information of seven users who badmouthed the company online.

The nonprofit citizens’ advocacy group Public Citizen is urging the Virginia Court of Appeals to reverse the ruling of the lower court and protect the First Amendment rights of the seven users involved.

Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, Inc. is a private company serving the Washington D.C. area, which offered a $99 promo for a basic carpet cleaning. Yelp users claimed the $99 price tag was just a ruse. Customers said they left carpets with Hadeed and later returned to find they were slapped with extra fees for the cleaning. Some claimed Hadeed would not surrender their carpets until all the fees were paid.

Hadeed denied that it charges for work not performed or charges twice the advertised price. The company sued the authors of seven reviews on July 2, 2012. They say they can’t match the names of the seven reviewers with anyone in their database of current or previous customers.

The company believes these seven reviews are fake, likely written by a rival carpet cleaner. However, other reviews, from actual customers, also made similar allegations that they were charged more than $99, according to Public Citizen.

The Virginia court allowed Hadeed to subpoena identifying information on the users from Yelp. When Yelp refused to comply, it was found in contempt of court.

Courts elsewhere, Public Citizen reported, use the Dendrite rules when anonymous speakers are about to be stripped of their anonymity. First the court allows the speaker to respond and determine if the statement is false before stripping them of their right to free speech. This was not followed in the Hadeed case.

“The main question on appeal in this case is whether the trial court applied the proper legal standard in overriding the First Amendment rights of the anonymous speakers,” said Public Citizen. “Courts elsewhere have recognized that before stripping the defendant of a First Amendment right, they should take an early look at the case to confirm that the speaker’s statement appears to be false and defamatory, such that the company’s claim is viable. In this appeal, where the users’ original claims about Hadeed’s practices are echoed by dozens of other users whose reviews have not been challenged as defamatory, Yelp urges Virginia to adopt that approach.”

A more recent review on Yelp dated August 9, 2012 from Asad Z. of McClean, Va., says, “I found Hadeed Rug to be flat-out dishonest.”

“Hadeed has a FAKE deal - $99 for 400 sq. feet, which I thought I could use because we were only cleaning two small bedrooms,” he wrote. “Two guys show up - walk through and say... this is a $450 job because we have to use ‘chemicals.’ I told them about the $99 deal and that I only needed a basic cleaning because it was already shampooed… but the guy goes on to BRAG how their customers always sign up for the $99 and end up paying more. Literally, the two guys went back and forth with each other competing on how much they had up-charged… including some poor customer who was charged $600 after a $99 estimate.”

Sources: Raw Story, Public Citizen