Seattle-based Avvo has a right to post its ratings of lawyers and doctors online.
That's according to the U.S. District Court in Seattle, which ruled last week that the website, with its health and legal directory and question and answer forum, is protected under Washington state's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) law.
The anti-SLAPP law protects people and organizations from threatened lawsuits that are intended to censor or intimidate them into removing or changing content. The law requires the party being sued to prove that the content in question is covered by the First Amendment. Then the party bringing the lawsuit must prove their likelihood of winning the suit.
Florida attorney Larry Joe Davis Jr. brought the lawsuit against Avvo in 2010, claiming libel against the company for its rating of him on its website.
This was not the first time Avvo had been sued. High-profile Washington attorney John Henry Browne - who is currently representing U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians while stationed in Afghanistan - sued Avvo in 2007 for its attorney ratings system and publication of state bar records. Although this was before Washington had an anti-SLAPP law, the case against Avvo was dismissed.
Then last week, the U.S. District Court ruled in Avvo's favor in one of the first tests of Washington's Anti-SLAPP law, which was passed two years ago. The decision requires the plaintiff to pay a $10,000 fine and Avvo's more than $50,000 in legal fees.
“This is really a victory for First Amendment rights in Washington,” Avvo attorney Josh King said.
The company uses search algorithms to seek out publicly available information online and create a profile for every doctor and lawyer in the country. The company also has created a rating system that is based on an individual's awards, publications, number of years in practice, sanctions, discipline and censure. The profiles also include an area for client reviews.
King said he gets at least two calls every week threatening the company with lawsuits for publishing information about lawyers and doctors online.
In addition to listing a Florida Bar Association sanction against Davis, Avvo had mistakenly identified Davis as an employment attorney, King said. He is actually a health care attorney.
"He found out when someone called him and wanted to hire him as an employment attorney," King said.
If a doctor or attorney wants to change the biographical details of his or her Avvo profile, including the type of practice, that person can "claim" the profile and update it. That will not affect the website's rating, however, which is determined and updated by Avvo.
"When you're bringing in disparate data and classifying it, you have to strike the right balance between how accurate it can be and how much data you want," King said.
He added that Avvo has flagged the source that led to Davis' and other Florida attorneys' practice misidentification. Davis' profile has since been updated.
By Emily Parkhurst, 206-876-5441, email@example.com