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Jax Daily Record Monday, Jan. 11, 201612:00 PM EST

Attorney receiving $350,000 award after false statements posted online

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

Be careful what you say.

That’s been good advice since people began communicating with language.

The most modern evolution — be careful what you post on the Internet — was confirmed last week by the 4th District Court of Appeal.

The court on Wednesday upheld a decision by the Circuit Court in Broward County that awarded attorney Ann-Marie Giustibelli $350,000.

After Giustibelli represented Copia Blake in a divorce case against Peter Birzon, the couple posted critical reviews of the attorney on the Internet.

They claimed Giustibelli misrepresented her fees, charging four times the amount agreed to, and that she altered documents to support the increase in fees.

The couple also wrote in their review the attorney had no integrity, would “say one thing and do another” and that Guistibelli “absolutely perpetuates the horrible image of attorneys who are only out for the money and themselves.”

Guistibelli sued Blake and Birzon for libel and breach of contract and was awarded $350,000 in punitive damages in Broward County Circuit Court.

During the trial, both Blake and Birzon admitted posting the reviews and also admitted Guistibelli had not charged Blake more than what was quoted in their agreement.

The couple appealed, contending their Internet reviews were statements of opinion and therefore protected by the First Amendment and not actionable as defamation.

In the opinion from a three-judge panel, 4th District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Cory Ciklin wrote that Blake and Birzon made false statements online and the First Amendment does not confer immunity from committing libel.

In reference to the allegations posted on the Internet that Guistibelli falsely represented her fee and falsified the contract, Ciklin wrote, in part, “these are factual allegations and the evidence showed they were false.”

After the appeal was filed, Birzon filed a notice that he and Guistibelli had settled the matter and he was withdrawing his appeal, but Blake did not join in the notice.

In his opinion, Ciklin said the court would not have dismissed the appeal even if she had withdrawn.

“We affirm in all respects, but this issue merits discussion as it presents a scenario that will likely recur, and the public will benefit from an opinion on the matter,” Ciklin wrote.

Ethan Wall is an attorney in Miami who has for eight years specialized in social media and Internet law. He has conducted seminars on the topic for The Florida Bar.

He said the appellate court’s ruling in the Guistibelli case could be considered a “landmark” decision because it addresses a shift in culture that will continue to affect the legal profession.

“When our forefathers drafted the Constitution, there was no Internet or Facebook,” Wall said. “This is breaking new ground.”

He said the ruling affirms that while access to the Internet allows a person to exercise their right to free speech on a global scale, it doesn’t negate the law.

“What someone says or does on the Internet can have serious legal implications. If someone posts a statement that’s libel, it’s actionable,” said Wall.

Jacksonville attorney John Phillips said his law office has been reviewed on the Internet more than 100 times and the vast majority were positive comments.

“For the most part, people who take time to review have a strong feeling — good or bad,” he said.

What concerns Phillips is when a review includes incorrect statements or when it’s posted by someone who wasn’t a client. In those cases, an attorney has a way to possibly have a review removed from the Web.

“We’ve been able to take them down after we approached the website and told them it was libelous,” Phillips said.

Attorney Tad Delegal said he’s been inaccurately reviewed and he’s represented clients, including some lawyers, who have had defamation issues regarding what was posted about them on the Internet.

He agreed there is recourse.

“Some Internet companies will take down a review if the facts are incorrect,” said Delegal. “I’ve had pretty good luck.”

Wall recommends that no response is usually the best response to a negative review posted on the Internet. Adding traffic to the website and the review may make it more likely to show up when a prospective client is looking for comments about attorneys.

“If an attorney comments, it creates a larger digital footprint and that makes it more likely to show up in a Web search,” said Wall.

He said his advice to attorneys who are negatively reviewed on the Internet and wish to respond is to limit their comment to pointing out they disagree with the review from their former client and they always strive to provide the highest level of legal care.

“Technology has created new opportunities for attorneys, but also new challenges,” said Wall.

Phillips said he realizes his work being reviewed from time to time has become part of his practice, as it has for all attorneys.

“Internet reviews are a fact of life,” he said.

Delegal agreed.

“The Internet is not going away and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

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