Yesterday, a federal judge in Washington dismissed a class action lawsuit filed by two prominent lawyers in Seattle against Avvo Inc., the operator of Avvo.com, a website that profiles and rates lawyers and allows users to submit reviews of lawyers they have worked with. Plaintiffs also sued Mark Britton, Avvo's CEO, and 25 anonymous "John Doe" users of the site. By filing a class action lawsuit, the two lawyers are disputing not only their own rankings on the site, which they claim are unreasonably low, but are also challenging the accuracy and validity of the mathematical algorithm used by Avvo to rate and compare attorneys.
In dismissing the complaint without leave to amend, Judge Lasnik wrote that the ratings on the site are protected statements of opinion, commenting that "defendants' rating is not only defensible, it is virtually impossible to prove wrong." While evidencing clear skepticism about lawyer ratings generally, the judge also took the plaintiffs to task for bringing the lawsuit:
[P]laintiffs Browne and Wenokur want to make a federal case out of the number assigned to them because (a) it could harm their reputation, (b) it could cost them customers/fees, or (c) it could mislead the lawyer-hiring public into retaining poor lawyers or bypassing better lawyers. To the extent that their lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them. To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action
Judge Lasnik also rejected the plaintiffs' claim under the Washington Consumer Protection Act, concluding that the rankings are not commercial enough to fall under the act and any damages resulting from consumer misinformation are too speculative to support a claim.
As to Avvo’s possible defense under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the judge noted that "[p]laintiffs have disavowed any claim based on content that Avvo obtained from a third-party and the Court need not consider this defense further."
For additional details and court documents, please see the CMLP database entry: Browne v. Avvo Inc. You can also read Avvo's response to the decision on its blog and get more background on the decision from Eric Goldman and Robert Ambrogi.