Jennifer Ujimori wasn’t happy with the dog obedience class she booked for her pint-sized puppy, so the Springfield woman dashed out negative reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List to inform consumers about her experience.
“In a nutshell, the services delivered were not as advertised and the owner refused a refund,” Ujimori wrote on Yelp.
Burke’s Dog Tranquility never did offer a refund, but Ujimori got something else: a $65,000 defamation lawsuit. Dog Tranquility’s owner, Colleen Dermott, claims Ujimori’s statements were false and damaged her small business, which had great reviews until that point.
Ujimori stands by her reviews and said she is fighting the lawsuit because too many businesses are turning to the courts to try to intimidate customers into erasing critical comments on review sites.
“For me, it’s a matter of principle and public interest,” Ujimori said. “People should be free to express their feelings about their service providers. Companies using the legal system to silence their critics has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.”
Lawsuits over negative reviews have risen in recent years with the popularity of sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List and TripAdvisor that allow users to rate and provide feedback on businesses. The reviews have become an increasingly important factor for companies, generating new customers — or sending them fleeing.
In 2012, a D.C.-based contractor sued a Fairfax woman for $750,000 over her one-star takedown of his work on her home. And the Virginia Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether Yelp will be required to turn over the names of anonymous users who disparaged Alexandria’s Hadeed Carpet Cleaners. First Amendment advocates are watching that case closely.
The dispute began in January when Ujimori and her dog Yuki began attending a $175 basic obedience class. Ujimori, an employee of the federal government, said she wanted to socialize her dog because she hopes the white Bolognese will become a therapy dog for the elderly and sick children.
Ujimori said in her review that Yuki, then 14 weeks and four pounds, was put into a class with much older and larger dogs and isolated in a gated-off area away from other canines — not ideal for socialization. She said she requested a pro-rated refund but never got it. Yelp has since removed the review.
Dermott said in the lawsuit that she sent e-mails to Ujimori before the class started explaining that it would be a mixed group and that there was an optional gated-off area for small dogs. Dermott also claimed that the contract Ujimori signed had a no-refund clause.
The business owner said in an interview that she tried several different ways to satisfy Ujimori — including giving her a credit for a future class — but that nothing worked.
“It had a significant impact in that I’m a small-business owner,” Dermott said of the negative reviews. “I have to rely on these review sites as a major source of advertising.”
Dermott, 31, said her family depends on the business. She is the wife of a soldier and the mother of two young children. She helps train dogs to assist veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ujimori said she wanted to go public with the case to try to spur Virginia legislators to pass what is known as an anti-SLAPP law. Ujimori said she believes lawsuits such as Dog Tranquility’s are aimed at stifling free speech by forcing defendants to run up large legal bills. Anti-SLAPP laws allow for the quick dismissal of cases a judge deems to be targeting First Amendment rights. The District and more than half of the states, including Maryland, have one. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”)
“I do not believe a customer imagines that typing out a review of their experience followed by a few clicks can result in getting slapped with a $65,000 lawsuit,” said Jonathan Phillips, Ujimori’s attorney.