Attorneys v. Clients: Clients Ordered to Pay $350K for Online Defamation

As the old adage goes, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”  Disgruntled clients are increasingly posting defamatory reviews on widely available public online attorney review websites. Some attorneys have begun fighting to protect their online reputations by filing defamation suits against their former clients.

On January 6, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the First Amendment does not protect demonstratively false allegations that a former client wrote about her attorney and posted online. The court determined that the comments posted on Avvo and other attorney review websites were factually inaccurate statements rather than statements of opinion. The comments included claims that the attorney misrepresented her fees and falsified a contract to support the increase in fees.  The court ordered the client and her husband to pay $350,000.00 in punitive damages for defamation

The court’s decision has been hailed as a potential turning point in the online battle among some attorneys and their clients that is damaging to attorneys’ reputations. However, it is important to note that a similar ‘client vs. lawyer’ defamation case in another state may not result in a similar award; Florida statutes allow targets of per se defamation to recover punitive damages even when the plaintiff cannot demonstrate a quantifiable loss. By contrast, there are higher evidentiary burdens in other jurisdictions that require punitive damages to be based on the amount of actual damages. Without a calculable loss, this burden would create a barrier to achieving a similar result.

To read the trial court’s opinion, click here.

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