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Injunction lifted on home contractor’s online critic

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A woman being sued by a home contractor for posting negative online reviews can continue posting criticism of his work if she chooses, according to a decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The state's highest court ruled Friday to reverse a preliminary injunction against Fairfax resident Jane Perez that required her to take down complaints she made against Christopher Dietz and his company, Dietz Development LLC.

While a final ruling has yet to be made on whether Ms. Perez owes Mr. Dietz hundreds of thousands of dollars he is seeking in punitive damages, the court's decision is a victory for free-speech advocates and "a win for consumers," according to Ms. Perez's lawyer.

"If someone is sued through defamation, the law stands to protect them," said Paul Levy, a lawyer with the Public Citizen Litigation Group. "In the meantime, the public has more information with which to make decisions. That's the right approach in a country which values giving everybody their say."

The court's decision, handed down just two days after the petition for the injunction's review was made, admittedly came as "a bit of a surprise," according to Milt Johns, an attorney with Day & Johns law firm, which is representing Mr. Dietz.

"We did not have a chance to respond to the petition or argue to the court," Mr. Johns said. "But that's just a little bit of the process. The Supreme Court didn't rule it wasn't defamation or our client didn't have a case, it just said the injunction wasn't an appropriate remedy."

At the heart of the case are a series of opinions posted last year to online review sites Yelp and Angie's List. The reviews referenced home repairs performed by Mr. Dietz's company in 2011 at Ms. Perez's Fairfax home. Court papers state the two knew each other from high school.

On several occasions, Ms. Perez posted reviews to the online sites that were critical of the work done by the construction company. Among her complaints were that she was "left with damage to my home, and work that had to be redone for thousands of dollars more than originally estimated." She also complained that Mr. Dietz charged her for work that was not performed, and jewelry had gone missing from her home when she had given a spare key to the developer.

"Bottom line," one review read, "do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor."

Mr. Dietz and his company sued Ms. Perez in Fairfax Circuit Court in October, claiming her criticism was not only untrue, but could hurt business. He asked a judge to order Ms. Perez to take the negative comments down until the trial, to refrain from saying anything else negative about the matter, and for a judge to award him $750,000 in damages.

In early December, a judge ordered Ms. Perez to take down her comments, a point at which the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union joined the fight and began assisting with Ms. Perez's defense, said legal director Rebecca Glenberg.

"It's not that people can always get away with false comments about people they do business with. It's just that a judge cannot order someone to stop speaking when a lawsuit is pending," Ms. Glenberg said. "These kinds of lawsuits against online critics are becoming increasingly common. It's very important to preserve the Internet as a forum where people can exchange information about the goods and services they purchase."

Speaking in general about the policy of Angie's List, spokeswoman Cheryl Reed said the online review site fully thinks that its members "have a constitutional right to free expression."

"We believe consumers have the right to share their honest experiences," she added. "They shouldn't fear doing that."

Members are required to accept the member agreement, Ms. Reed said, which instructs reviewers to tell the truth about their own experiences and not the experience of others.

Angie's List has a team of experts who study each submission and check for "red flags," she said, such as identical reviews sent multiple times in an effort to weight the system one way or another.

"There have been occasions when people honestly, mistakenly have done something to violate the agreement," Ms. Reed said. "There have been other occasions when it's not accidental."

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