But on Friday, the Virginia Supreme Court found the preliminary injunction was not limited to a prescribed period, was not justified and the contractor, Christopher Dietz, had adequate remedy by suing for damages.
The ACLU and Public Citizen filed the appeal of the preliminary injunction on behalf of Perez late last month, saying it was unfair for the Fairfax court to suppress Perez’s First Amendment rights and it violated Virginia law.
“This ruling means that merchants who want to sue for libel are going to have to prove their cases, instead of running into court to get criticisms taken down on a preliminary showing,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen. “Consumers are the big winners here.”
Attorneys say legal actions over online reviews are on the rise. Such cases have pitted free speech rights versus the increasing importance of online reviews for a range of businesses and professionals.
Some reviewers, First Amendment groups and consumer advocates see the lawsuits as attempts to muzzle important consumer information, while businesses say they often have little choice but to sue since false reviews can have a major impact on bottom lines.
In her review of Dietz Development, Perez claimed damage was done to her home, she was billed for work that was never completed and jewelry went missing from her home when Dietz was the only one with a key. Dietz has not been charged with theft in the case and denies her allegations.
Perez also claimed she won a lawsuit Dietz filed against her for unpaid bills. The suit was dismissed before a judge ruled on the merits of the case. It was the latter claims about the jewelry and the lawsuit that a Fairfax County judge issued a preliminary injunction against.
Milt Johns, an attorney for Dietz, said he was confident in his client’s case, but said the Supreme Court’s ruling was a “bit of a surprise.” ACLU and Public Citizen filed their appeal on Dec. 26 and the court ruled on Dec. 28.
“We did not have a chance to argue…or really provide any response,” Johns said. “We are somewhat at a loss…as to what their considerations were.”
Under Virginia law, Johns said the court did not have to wait for a response from Dietz to make its ruling.