A Florida appeals court has affirmed $350,000 in punitive damages awarded to a lawyer who claimed that a former client defamed her in on-line reviews. Some courts have turned back claims based on internet reviews. But in Blake v. Ann-Marie Giustibelli, P.A., the court said there was no free-speech shield for the former client’s false statements on various internet review sites.
“Contract submitted was 4x the original quote”
The defamation case arose from one of the riskiest practice areas in terms of client dissatisfaction — domestic relations. The lawyer represented the wife in a dissolution proceeding. After a breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship, both the ex-client and her soon-to-be ex-husband took to the ether to blast the lawyer on several lawyer-review sites.
Among other things, they stated that
- “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 curt 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 …”
- “Altered her charges to 4 times the original quote with no explanation.”
- “Spent over a year (and 4 times her original estimate) to arrive at the same place we started at.”
The lawyer sued for libel, as well as breach of contract and for attorney’s fees, alleging that the ex-client still owed fees for the representation.
At trial, the evidence showed that the client had agreed to pay the lawyer the amount that was reflected on the written retainer agreement, and that the lawyer had not falsified the contract. Further, both the client and her ex-husband admitted that the lawyer had not charged four times more than what was quoted in the agreement.
Libel per se still exists in Sunshine State
The court rejected the client’s argument that the on-line 0reviews were merely statements of opinion, or that free speech protection applied. Pointing to the charges of falsifying the fee agreement and the repeated charges that the lawyer had charged four times her estimate, the court said that “[t]hese are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false.”
The client also argued that libel per se no longer was a viable legal concept in Florida, and that the lawyer was not entitled to a presumption of malice and damages. And indeed, the court said, that is true under Florida law with respect to a libel action against a media figure — in its 1985 opinion in Mid-Florida Television Corp. v. Boyles, the state supreme court held that in cases involving media defendants, fault and proof of damages must always be established.
But the instant case did not involve a media defendant, and “libel per se otherwise still exists in Florida,” the court held.
Tell no lies
This won’t be the last battle over how far unhappy clients can go in bashing their lawyers on review sites. But at least in Florida, clients can’t misrepresent the facts without risking liability for defamation, and cannot hide behind “free speech” protection if they do so. As lawyers we embrace the importance of the First Amendment, but it should not protect someone bent on spreading untruths about someone else.
The court’s opinion notes that the ex-husband dismissed his part of the appeal after settling with the lawyer. Hope the lawyer can collect at least some of the punitive damages awarded.