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Online reviews could get you in big trouble

Posted at 6:04 AM, Nov 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-20 09:04:44-05

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." 

That couldn't be further from the truth when it comes to expressing yourself online. 

You may think you're just sharing your opinions and experiences, but as Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears found, your words could come back to haunt you.

 "I couldn't believe the horrible customer service we received."

"I would not recommend this place to anyone"

The above two comments sound like typical reviews you'd read on Yelp, but as Rae K learned, "You really do not have the freedom to share that information.  You could be sued."

In 2014, Rae had a bad customer experience with bankruptcy attorney Anthony DeLuca. 

She wrote about it on Yelp under her first name and last initial.

"I felt like other people needed to know."

We're not using her full name because, in a case titled DeLuca and Associates vs. Individuals 1 through 100, Anthony DeLuca filed a subpoena, trying to force Yelp to reveal personal account information for Rae and four other reviewers.

Anthony DeLuca: We have a right to know that these are actual clients and not some bitter competitor that's putting nasty things on the internet about us.
Darcy Spears: Are you trying to get the negative reviews taken down?
DeLuca: What business isn't?
Spears: Are you trying to sue people into silence?
DeLuca: Have I sued anybody, Darcy?

The answer is no. At least, not yet. But the threat was enough for Rae.

"I was frightened. I cried. I was angry."

Rae's review began with the comment, "You will not speak with an attorney again after your case is filed."  She also reported a long wait time and a "boiler room" atmosphere.  

Her complaints are similar to others.  In fact, a federal judge has called DeLuca's firm a bankruptcy mill.

"So you're saying that two cases out of 25,000 gives the accurate impression?" DeLuca countered.

DeLuca has been formally reprimanded twice.

"There were two sanctions. Both of them involved clients who committed absolute horrendous fraud against other people," DeLuca said.

But the federal court found DeLuca did wrong too. In fact, two courts did. In 2013, he lost his appeal of a 2012 sanction and found himself at the butt end of a harshly worded rebuke.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Bruce Markell wrote, "DeLuca violated his duty to the public by practicing in a manner that erodes the public's trust in attorneys. He treats all clients the same, creating the impression that attorneys are more interested in fees than solving individual client's problems."

"He can't go after the federal courts, so he goes after the little people," said Rae.

In September, 2014, Socrates G. posted a Yelp review about having to wait a long time, much like Rae's complaint.  About DeLuca, he originally wrote, "apparently my time isn't worth his time." 

Then, on September 17, 2015, just over a week after the subpoena was issued, he modified his post, adding,  "This is all my personal opinion.  There is no slander involved in my opinion.  I am editing it b/c I am being 'sued' for free speech by the law office."

"If you hide behind an anonymous tag and just start throwing bombs at people, then what do you expect to come out of it?" DeLuca asked, adding that he's just trying to protect his firm and its reputation.

"And I don't really like the impression that we're bullying people."

But instead of reaching out to Rae on Yelp, his first step was filing a subpoena.

Darcy Spears: Why go right to court instead of responding and trying to engage in a dialog?
Anthony DeLuca: Ok, so if somebody personally attacks me then it's my job to go and appease them?  I mean this is what's talked about when you talk about the extortion and bullying on Yelp.

Yelp objected to DeLuca's subpoena and he hasn't pursued it further. 

Yelp's resistance failed in a similar case in Virginia filed by a carpet cleaning company.  The court there forced Yelp to reveal reviewers personal information.

Yelp condemns businesses who seek to "intimidate and chill critical speech." 

As for Rae, the chill has permanently set in.

"I took the review off of there and I will never participate in giving a Yelp review again unless it's a good one."
We'd like to hear from you.  What's been your experience when you post a bad review online?  Share your comments on our Facebook page.