Court dismisses Avvo.com class action lawsuit

Yesterday District Judge Lasnik of the Western District of Washington granted Avvo.com’s motion to dismiss the class action complaint filed against the site earlier this year, ruling that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the First Amendment and Washington’s Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”). If you aren’t familiar with the case,

Plaintiffs’ primary challenge is to the accuracy and validity of the numerical rating system used by Avvo to compare attorneys. Defendants assert that the opinions expressed through the rating system, (i.e., that attorney X is a 3.5 and/or that an attorney with a higher rating is better able to handle a particular case than an attorney with a lower rating), are absolutely protected by the First Amendment and cannot serve as the basis for liability under state law.

Directing that “the key issue is whether the challenged statement could ‘reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts’ about plaintiff,” the court found in favor of Avvo. Among its findings-

  • Avvo’s website contains numerous reminders that the Avvo rating system is subjective. The ratings are described as an “assessment” or “judgment,” two words that imply some sort of evaluative process.
  • Neither the nature of the information provided nor the language used on the website would lead a reasonable person to believe that the ratings are a statement of actual fact.
  • [T]he Avvo rating system is an abstraction. (“No reasonable consumer would believe that Avvo is asserting that plaintiff Browne is a ‘5.5.’”)
  • [D]efendants’ rating is . . . virtually impossible to prove wrong.
  • Defendants fairly describe the nature of the information on which Avvo’s ratings are based and make it clear that (a) there may be other relevant data that the rating does not consider and (b) the conversion of the available information into a number involves judgment, interpretation, and assessment.
  • Consumers and the attorneys profiled have access to the underlying information and, while they may disagree with a particular rating and/or the implied comparisons drawn therefrom, “[t]here is no objective standard by which one can measure an advocate’s abilities with any certitude or determine conclusively the truth or falsity of [Avvo’s] statements . . . .”

Thus “[t]o the extent that [plaintiffs] seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges . . . the First Amendment precludes their cause of action.”

The opinion also includes an analysis and rejection of related claims under the CPA (plaintiffs also argued that (i) Avvo mischaracterized its rating systems, (ii) some of the data included in profiles is inaccurate, and (iii) Avvo’s overall business model is coercive). The court declined to address Avvo’s Section 230 defense, noting that “[p]laintiffs have disavowed any claim based on content that Avvo obtained from a third-party.”

Interestingly, the court seemed to leave the door open to claims against Avvo by individuals who rely on Avvo ratings to their detriment (“Consumers who were misled by the information and ratings provided by Avvo are the direct victims of the alleged wrongdoing.”) However, the remark was made while observing the remoteness of plaintiffs’ asserted damages, and may more properly be construed to mean that consumers directly harmed by an Avvo-rated attorney’s conduct would have a stronger position under the CPA than the plaintiffs do here, and that such a consumer claim would be made against the subject attorney.

Plaintiffs’ request for leave to amend their complaint was denied, so perhaps the Ninth Circuit will be the next stop for their claims.

Kudos to Avvo, which has responded to the decision on its blog. And thank you to Venkat Balasubramani for notifying me last night of Judge Lasnik’s ruling.

Guest Post: Lawsuit challenges online gambling ban in Washington state

In addition to being a skilled chess player, my partner John Leonard is also no stranger to the inside of a casino. While I don’t think he’s ever made a virtual wager, I thought he’d enjoy summarizing the following case, which challenges Washington’s Internet gambling prohibition. Thank you to Mr. Rousso for sharing the discovery request linked to below. -MHE

On the first day of the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event, Lee Rousso, a resident of King County, State of Washington, filed a lawsuit in the King County Circuit Court asking that that State’s law barring internet gambling be declared unconstitutional. The law was passed in 2006, and became effective in June of that year.

According to the complaint filed in the suit, Rousso, from June, 2003 to June, 2007, regularly logged on to pokerstars.com, described as the “world’s leading internet poker site,” and played poker against other Pokerstar customers. Although most of Rousso’s internet poker playing involved “play money,” some of the games were allegedly played for virtual chips that represented real money.

Noting, among other things, that internet poker is not illegal under federal law, and that gambling, including poker, are legal in the State of Washington, Rousso charged in his suit that the Washington law outlawing internet poker was unconstitutional in that it violated the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution because it: (1) discriminates against internet poker in favor of legal “brick-and-mortar” casinos in the State of Washington; (2) places an undue burden on interstate commerce; (3) places an undue burden on international commerce; and (4) infringes upon the federal regulation of internet gambling, and violates the General Agreement on Trade & Tariffs (the “GATT Treaty”). Rousso also charged that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and because of its vagueness, violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process of law to citizens of the several states.

Unfortunately for Rousso, despite his impressive complaint, the suit has thus far not gone well. In response to his complaint, the State of Washington served upon him a demand for production of information that, according to Rousso, is confidential and protected from disclosure by the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination. The lower court then denied Rousso’s request for a protective order with respect to the production of the requested information, a decision that Rousso has appealed to the Division One Court of Appeals.

However, conceding that the State had won the first round of the case, Rousso has stated that he has waiting in the wings a substitute plaintiff who could come in to the case, or perhaps file a new case, pursuing the same constitutional challenges to the Washington law that are at issue in the present lawsuit.

I’ll be watching this one closely, and will update as further information becomes available. Knowing, however, how difficult it is to get a state statute declared violative of the U.S. Constitution, I believe that Mr. Rousso is in for an uphill fight.

One question that comes to mind is why Mr. Rousso did not seek to have the statute declared invalid under the Washington State Constitution. While I readily admit that I am not a Washington lawyer, and know nothing about the Washington Constitution, I am aware of the growing trend of citizens of the states seeking relief from allegedly oppressive statutes under their respective state constitutions, which in many cases offer expanded constitutional protections not available under the Constitution of the United States. Just a thought.

I pressed John for an example, and here’s what he came up with:

It appears to me that the following articles from Article I, Declaration of Rights, of the Washington Constitution apply directly to Mr. Rousso’s case. This is especially true of Article 12. Article 8 may not be directly applicable because it deals with the irrevocable grant of privileges and immunities, which I don’t think is what is involved in the statute that Mr. Rousso is challenging. I don’t understand why he didn’t raise these State Constitutional provisions in his Complaint.

SECTION 12 SPECIAL PRIVILEGES AND IMMUNITIES PROHIBITED.
No law shall be passed granting to any citizen, class of citizens, or corporation other than municipal, privileges or immunities which upon the same terms shall not equally belong to all citizens, or corporations.

SECTION 8 IRREVOCABLE PRIVILEGE, FRANCHISE OR IMMUNITY PROHIBITED.
No law granting irrevocably any privilege, franchise or immunity, shall be passed by the legislature.

Thanks again, John, for the guest post. For anyone interested, here’s the press release Mr. Rousso issued when the suit was first filed.

Facebook agrees to Judgment in Putative Class Action

Eric Goldman and Venkat Balasubramani previously blogged about the filing of a class action suit against Facebook earlier this year in California. My thoughts after reading the complaint several times was that while I agree that Section 230 would likely immunize Facebook for the content of unwelcome text or SMS messages, the statute would not necessarily protect Facebook from potential liability for the mechanism itself and/or related policies. Well, don’t expect answers to these questions any time soon.

While it has apparently not yet been entered by the Court, yesterday Facebook filed a Stipulated Entry of Judgment of Dismissal with Prejudice and General Release. Per the stipulation, Facebook has agreed to implement a “notice system” whereby it will provide text message recipients with a way to stop receiving such messages from Facebook (although the stipulation contains some language suggesting that this notice will only be included in every 15th message transmitted by Facebook), identify Facebook as the sender of such messages, and press mobile carriers to utilize “deactivation logs” to reduce the frequency of undesired text messages transmitted by Facebook. Facebook has also committed to pay plaintiff and her attorneys in amounts to be determined by the Court.

No doubt Section 230 would have found its way into a Facebook motion and/or answer, given Facebook’s assertion in Paragraph 8 of the stipulation that it didn’t do anything wrong, and that “it is immune from any liability under the [CDA].” (emphasis added)

UPDATE:  On January 23, 2008, Judge Fogel entered a dismissal order terminating this case.

Anthony v. Yahoo! – Summary and Update

In 2005 Florida resident Robert Anthony filed a class action lawsuit against Yahoo! in the Northern District of California. Anthony’s complaint, as amended, alleged that Yahoo! created and perpetuated false and/or non-existent profiles on its on-line dating services (Yahoo! Personals, which Yahoo! states has “millions of users”, and Yahoo! Premier), with the intention of fooling people into joining the services and renewing their memberships. Anthony’s causes of action included breach of contract, fraud, negligent misrepresentation and violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (“FDUTPA”).

In a March 2006 order Judge Ronald M. Whyte granted Yahoo!’s motion to dismiss the contract claim (“Anthony cannot identify any contractual term that requires Yahoo! not to create or forward false profiles.”), but denied the motion as to the fraud, negligent misrepresentation and FDUTPA claims. Yahoo! had argued that such claims were barred by Section 230, but the court noted that Anthony alleged that Yahoo! created the false profiles and sent them to users, rendering Section 230 inapplicable.

Interestingly, the court also withheld Section 230 immunity with respect to Yahoo!’s alleged transmittal of profiles of “actual, legitimate former subscribers whose subscriptions had expired and who were no longer members of the service.” The court reasoned that while such profiles were created by actual, former users of the service (and not Yahoo!), “Anthony posits that Yahoo!’s manner of presenting the profiles – not the underlying profiles themselves – constitute fraud.” (emphasis added). It would have been nice if the court would have elaborated further upon this point.

Anthony next filed a second amended class action complaint which seeks damages in excess of $5 million and replaces the breach of contract claim with a claim for “Breach of the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing.” Anthony states in this most recent pleading that he “believes even stronger evidence of fraud can be obtained from an examination of Yahoo!’s computer systems.”

The parties have briefed, but the court has not ruled, on the plaintiff’s motion for class certification.

Presumably evolving from two mediation sessions presided over by a former federal magistrate, this past summer the parties entered into a settlement agreement, which provides for the certification of a nationwide settlement class consisting of “all paid subscribers in the United States to Yahoo! Personals (including Yahoo! Personals Premier) between October 1, 2004 and the date of preliminary approval of this Settlement by the Court.” The settlement would, among other things, require Yahoo!, for two years, to maintain a “Report a Complaint” link, render certain inactive profiles unsearchable, and give canceling members the opportunity to delete their profile. Yahoo! also must place $4 million in a common fund for legal fees and distribution to authorized claimants.

In August, Judge Whyte preliminarily approved the settlement and requisite notice to class members. A final approval hearing is scheduled for next Friday, November 30, 2007, and as of this afternoon only one objection appeared on the court’s online docket.

6/16/2010 UPDATE: Here’s a link to the settlement website. The site notes that “The Court held a hearing (the “Final Approval Hearing”) . . . on Friday, November 30, 2007 at 9:00 a.m. The settlement was approved as fair, adequate, and proper. However, appeals were filed. These appeals have now been resolved.”

CRS Report on Proposed Internet Gambling Regulations

The good folks at opencrs (“Congressional Research Reports for the People”) have posted a recent Congressional Research Service report describing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act passed last year, and implementation regulations issued last month by the Fed and the Treasury Department.

Here’s the Summary contained in the Report:

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) seeks to cut off the flow of revenue to unlawful Internet gambling businesses. It outlaws receipt of checks, credit card charges, electronic funds transfers, and the like by such businesses. It also enlists the assistance of banks, credit card issuers and other payment system participants to help stem the flow. To that end, it authorizes the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System (the Agencies), in consultation with the Justice Department, to promulgate implementing regulations. Proposed regulations have been announced with a comment period that ends on December 12, 2007, 72 Fed. Reg. 56680 (October 4, 2007).

The proposal addresses the feasibility of identifying and interdicting the flow of illicit Internet gambling proceeds in five pay systems: cards systems, money transmission systems, wire transfer systems, check collection systems, and the Automated Clearing House (ACH) system. It suggests that, except for financial institutions that deal directly with illegal Internet gambling operators, tracking the flow of revenue within the wire transfer, check collection, and ACH systems is not feasible at this point. It proposes exempting them from the regulations’ requirements, but invites comments that offer alternative approaches. It charges those with whom illegal Internet gambling operators may deal directly within those three systems, and participants in the card and money transmission systems, to adopt policies and procedures to enable them to identify the nature of their customers’ business, to employ customer agreements barring tainted transactions, and to establish and maintain remedial steps to deal with tainted transactions when they are identified. Introductory remarks explain why the Agencies rejected a [“check list of unlawful Internet gambling operators”] approach. Several bills have been introduced to augment these efforts, including H.R. 2046 (Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act), H.R. 2607 (Internet Gambling Regulation and Tax Enforcement Act) and H.R. 2610 (Skill Game Protection Act).

The Report is a great read for folks with an interest in the regulation of online gambling.

Below are links to the govtrac.us website for pending legislation referred to in the Report:

  • HR 2046 (Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act)
  • HR 2607 (Internet Gambling Regulation and Tax Enforcement Act)
  • HR 2610 (Skill Game Protection Act)