Tenant’s Yelp Review May Have Been Libelous

     (CN) – A California man who trashed his former landlords in a Yelp review cannot strike their libel claim by characterizing the review as mere opinion, an appeals court ruled.
     “While many Internet critiques are nothing more than ranting opinions that cannot be taken seriously, Internet commentary does not ipso facto get a free pass under defamation law,” Justice Kathleen Banke wrote for a three-member panel of the California Court of Appeal’s First Appellate District.
     Andreas Papaliolios had been living in apartment 701 of 1360 Jones Street, the highest point of the ritzy San Francisco neighborhood Nob Hill, for a year when Bently Nob Hill LP acquired the building in 2005.
     Christopher Bently, owner and managing partner of the LP, moved into the building’s penthouse with his wife, and his relations with Papaliolios soon proved “contentious and litigious,” according to the ruling.
     After the Bentlys unsuccessfully tried to evict their tenant, Papaliolios voluntarily moved out in 2008.
     The strife did not end there, however, and the Bentleys and LP sued Papaliolios for libel in 2012 over various reviews the former tenant posted on Yelp in February and March of that year.
     Calling himself Sal R., Papaliolios wrote that the Jones Street building was owned by a “sociopathic narcissist – who celebrates making the lives of tenants hell.”
     “Of the 16 mostly-long-term tenants who lived in the building when the new owners moved in, the new owners’ noise, intrusions and other abhorrent behaviors likely contributed to the death of three tenants (Pat, Mary & John) and the departure of eight more (units 1001, 902, 802, 801, 702, 701, 602, 502) in very short order,” one review stated. “Notice how they cleared out all the upper-floor units, so they could charge higher rents?”
     It ended with Papaliolios warning that “there is NO RENT that is low enough to make residency here worthwhile.” (Emphasis in original.)
     Papaliolios allegedly reposted the review several times after Yelp kept removing it at Bently’s request.
     He moved to strike the libel complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, but Judge Harold Kahn denied the motion in July 2012 and the appeals court affirmed Tuesday.
     The Bentlys told the court that they can disprove all of Papaliolios’ assertions, noting first off that neither he nor his wife has ever been diagnosed as a sociopathic narcissist.
     Also, John and Mary, two of the tenants described as dead at the Bentlys’ hands, are still alive. Pat died of cancer and pneumonia, according to the death certificate.
     While Papaliolios had argued that an Internet forum is expected to be a place for “strongly worded opinions rather than objective facts,” and thus “discounted accordingly,” the appellate panel found it not so simple.
     “The mere fact speech is broadcast across the Internet by an anonymous speaker does not ipso facto make it nonactionable opinion and immune from defamation law,” Banke wrote for the court.
     The ruling notes that Internet users could read Papaliolios’ reviews “as containing factual assertions, not just mere opinion”
     Papaliolios said he can prove the portion of the review about tenant evictions, but the appellate panel called his evidence “at best, murky.”
     “Given these triable issues in connection with the merits of plaintiffs’ libel claim, and the material nature of Papaliolios’ statements to a prospective tenant, a trier of fact might conclude that his review was not substantially true and was defamatory,” Banke wrote.

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