My client is complaining about me online, what do I do?

 In Georgia State Bar Grievances, Legal Malpractice

There are no guarantees in life or the law; sometimes clients lose their cases and their perception is skewed. When legal matters don’t turn out the way clients want, they are usually not happy about it. And sometimes they will blame the lawyer for the circumstances. Sometimes, that client is complaining about the payment of legal fees. Other times it’s simply a breakdown of communication between lawyer and client.

Because it’s so easy—and free—to complain on-line, unhappy clients vent their frustration in any of a million different places. All of this venting can cause reputation damage to the lawyer. We sometimes receive calls from lawyers who have unhappy clients that are complaining. We’ve also dealt with negative on-line reviews while defending lawyers in legal malpractice cases and State Bar disciplinary cases. What’s a lawyer to do?

The temptation to fight someone who’s wrong on-line

It’s very tempting to argue with a client who’s bad-mouthing you on-line. This is particularly true where they are saying false things about you, or the case. But engaging an angry client could be a major mistake. It was for Margrett Skinner. See In re Skinner, 295 Ga. 216 (2014).

In July 2009, a client hired Ms. Skinner to represent her in an uncontested divorce for a flat fee of $900. The parties finally signed the divorce documents in April 2010, after lengthy delays. Ms. Skinner requested an additional $185 for the filing fee and travel expenses from the client. But in May 2010, the client fired Ms. Skinner and requested a refund of $750 and that her file be sent to her new lawyer. Ms. Skinner refused to release the file until she was paid the additional amount she had requested. Later she refunded $650, but never gave the client’s file to new counsel.

The client posted some negative comments about Ms. Skinner on several web sites. Ms. Skinner posted responses that contained personal and confidential information about the client. Of course, the client filed a grievance with the Georgia Bar. Ultimately the State Bar brought the disciplinary action to the Georgia Supreme Court for decision.

The Georgia Supreme Court issued a public reprimand to Ms. Skinner. It found she violated Rules 1.4 Communication, and 1.6 Confidentiality of Information. In so holding, the Court noted that other jurisdictions had sometimes punished lawyers more severely where the cases involved numerous clients or violations of other rules. It also agreed with the special master’s finding of mitigating circumstances from Ms. Skinner’s private life, which are now public in the court opinion.

So, should a lawyer always ignore negative reviews or complaining former clients? Not necessarily.

Let it go?

In Pampattiwar  v. Hinson, 326 Ga.App. 163 (2014), the client hired Hinson’s firm to file a divorce action. Hinson sent Pampattiwar a bill for legal services, after which he accused Hinson and her staff of being “crooks,” and claimed that they had “duped” him. A month later, Hinson discovered a review of her law firm that had been posted on Kudzu.com. The reviewer described Hinson as a “CROOK” and an “Extremely Fraudulent Lady.” The reviewer claimed that Hinson “inflates her bills by 10 times” and had “duped 12 people i[n] the last couple of years.” Further investigation matched the IP address used for the review with Pampattiwar’s e-mails.

Hinson filed a lawsuit against her former client. After it was filed, another review was posted on Kudzu.com about Hinson. The reviewer claimed positive reviews appearing for Hinson on Kudzu.com were from her office staff. Further investigation revealed that the Kudzu.com user accounts for both reviews were the same, along with the IP addresses.

At trial, Pampattiwar denied posting the two reviews on Kudzu.com. Hinson testified to the events as set out above and that new calls to her office had declined since the postings. Hinson called several additional witnesses, including an information technology (“IT”) communications expert who traced the source of the two Kudzu.com reviews to the IP address associated with Pampattiwar. On her claims for fraud, libel per se, and false light invasion of privacy, Hinson did not assert that she suffered any pecuniary loss from the misrepresentations and instead sought damages for “wounded feelings.”

The jury found in favor of Hinson and awarded her damages for fraud, libel per se, and false light invasion of privacy. Pampattiwar filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for new trial, which the trial court denied. Pampattiwar appealed, but the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict; whether Hinson collected her judgment from Pampattiwar is unknown. But even if she recovered, Hinson certainly spent financial and human resources dealing with the suit against her former client, and most certainly Pampattiwar had lost time and out of pocket costs in having to defend himself for his postings.

Get objective, independent advice before addressing on-line reviews

Before you, as a lawyer, take action against a negative review, talk to another lawyer. Get objective, independent advice. Is it really worthwhile to file a lawsuit? Will you actually recover anything? Is the harm really significant enough to make it worth pursuing? Could the matter be resolved through better, more open communication with the client? These are serious questions that need serious answers before you take action. And you should consider how to prevent or head off complaints before clients post them.

Likewise, as a client, be very careful about what you say in writing, particularly on-line. Defending a lawsuit is expensive. And the end result of a significant damages award from a jury might mean bankruptcy, so the consequences could be serious.

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