Attorney Drops Case Against Legal Directory

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A San Francisco attorney who accused legal marketplace Avvo of misappropriating attorneys’ names and likenesses agreed to dismiss his case to avoid paying Avvo’s attorney’s fees, after a judge indicated his claims couldn’t hold up.
     Tenant-rights lawyer Aaron Darsky, who sued Avvo in a federal class action in December for allegedly publishing his information online without his consent and charging other attorneys to advertise on his profile, agreed to dismiss the lawsuit after U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam made “very, very clear” that he would rule in Avvo’s favor, making Darsky liable for the company’s attorney’s fees under California’s anti-SLAAP statute, Avvo attorney Josh King said in an interview.
     In February, Seattle-based Avvo filed a motion to strike the class action under the statute, which is aimed at preventing lawsuits intended to maliciously burden a party with the cost of a legal defense.
     “They agreed to dismiss the case to avoid that ruling, which would have been a judgment against them for all of our attorney’s fees,” King said.
     In exchange for agreeing to dismiss his claims, Darsky will only pay a portion of Avvo’s fees. That sum is confidential, according to King.
     Avvo creates profile pages for attorneys, listing their location, areas of practice, years of experience and client reviews, and assigns them an “Avvo rating.” It then charges other lawyers to advertise on those profiles.
     Avvo claims on its website that it has rated 97 percent of attorneys in the United States.
     Founded in 2006 by former Expedia.com general counsel Mark Briton, Avvo was valued at $650 million last year, according to a Bloomberg News report cited in the complaint.
     King called the lawsuit “ludicrous,” saying that under the theory of the case, Avvo is violating attorneys’ right of publicity, the right of an individual to control their name, image and likeness.
     “If that theory was correct, Donald Trump could sue the Washington Post for writing an article about him,” King said.
     This isn’t the first time dissatisfied attorneys have sued Avvo. A similar class action is pending in Illinois, and a Florida attorney sued the company in 2010 for defamation.
     King said lawyers regularly object to Avvo’s profiles because the company provides a forum for client feedback and publishes information about their misconduct.
     But King said Avvo isn’t beholden to them.
     “We’re publishing for the benefit of consumers, so we’re not going to be in a position where [content] is based on the consent of the lawyers,” he said.
     At the dismissal hearing in March, plaintiff’s counsel Roy Katriel argued that Avvo’s content is commercial speech and is therefore not constitutionally protected, because any attorney who advertises on the site is subject to having their advertisement regulated by the California State Bar.
     And while acknowledging in his complaint that an online legal directory is protected speech under the First Amendment, Darsky alleged that Avvo’s directory in particular is not protected because the company uses it to make money.
     “Instead of merely compiling and posting a list of licensed attorneys, Avvo goes further and, without the consent of the very attorneys whose names and/or likeness-identifying information Avvo has compiled, Avvo uses those attorneys’ names and/or likenesses to sell advertising or marketing programs to other attorneys,” Darsky claimed.
     Avvo counsel Bruce Johnson countered at the March hearing that the company’s legal directory is protected.
     “Mere proximity to advertising does not transform a fully protected statement into advertising,” he said.
     Johnson is with Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle. Katriel practices in La Jolla.
     Neither Katriel nor Darsky could be reached for comment on Friday.

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