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By Alexis Kramer
Jan. 6 — Online reviews alleging that an attorney falsified a contract and misrepresented her fees to a client weren't protected as free speech, the Florida District Court of Appeal for the Fourth District held Jan. 6 (Blake v. Ann-Marie Giustibelli, P.A., Fla. Dist. Ct. App., No. 4D14-3231, 1/6/16).
Chief Judge Cory J. Ciklin rejected the client's argument that the online reviews weren't actionable under the First Amendment because they constituted statements of opinion.
“These are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false,” the court said.
Attorney Ann-Marie Giustibelli represented Copia Blake in a divorce proceeding. After a breakdown in their attorney-client relationship, Blake posted allegedly defamatory online reviews about Giustibelli. Giustibelli brought a libel claim, in which the trial court awarded her damages. Blake appealed.
The court said Blake admitted at trial that Giustibelli didn't charge four times more than what was quoted in the contract, despite her online reviews alleging that she was overcharged by this amount.
Blake also argued “libel per se” no longer exists as a legal concept after Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that fault and proof of damages must be established in libel cases involving media defendants.
Here, the court distinguished Gertz because this case involves a private party, not a media defendant. The doctrine of libel per se still exists in Florida, the court said.
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