Derogatory online reviews about an attorney cost a client $350,000.
The separation was supposed to have been between former spouses Copia Blake and Peter Birzon, but in the end a vicious spat between Blake and her attorney took center stage in a libel case over derogatory Yelp and Avvo reviews and blog posts about the lawyer’s performance.
The attorney-client dispute reached a state appellate court after Blake and Birzon collaborated on scathing online reviews and blog posts accusing the lawyer of greed and other unethical behavior.
In the end, the Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected the couple’s claims of First Amendment free-speech protection for reviews of professional services posted on the Internet and upheld the trial court’s finding that the posts included false and libelous allegations. The court affirmed $350,000 in punitive damages against the couple.
“This issue merits discussion as it presents a scenario that will likely recur,” Fourth DCA Chief Judge Cory Ciklin wrote in a unanimous decision issued Jan. 6 with Judges Melanie May and Alan Forst.
At the center of the libel case is Ann-Marie Giustibelli, a Plantation lawyer who represented Blake in her divorce from Birzon, a Weston veterinarian.
“After a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship between Giustibelli and her client, Blake and oddly Birzon as well took to the Internet to post defamatory reviews of Giustibelli,” Ciklin wrote, with May and Forst concurring.
Giustibelli said she and Blake were friends and Blake agreed to pay her $300 an hour without a retainer.
Blake told a different story in her posts. She claimed the lawyer overstepped professional boundaries and falsified their contract to inflate her fees.
“There are no words to describe this,” Blake told the Daily Business Review. “I have been fighting this woman for five years.”
Blake also filed numerous complaints against Giustibelli with the Florida Bar, which confirmed it closed the case without the grievance committee finding any probable cause to charge the attorney with ethics violations.
“It really was a terrible ordeal,” Giustibelli said. “Clients use the media now as a way to extort the lawyer.”
In court documents, Blake and Birzon admitted posting the reviews on several websites but argued their comments were protected by the First Amendment and not actionable as defamation.
Ciklin disagreed and narrowed the dispute, noting the pair admitted at trial that Giustibelli did not charge four times more than what was quoted as the couple claimed.
“All the reviews contained allegations that Giustibelli lied to Blake regarding the attorney’s fee. Two of the reviews contained the allegation that Giustibelli falsified a contract,” the judge said. “These are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false.”
One Internet post attributed to Blake and Birzon in court records urged readers to “use anyone else” but Giustibelli and described a “horrible horrible experience” with the attorney.
“She was combative and explosive and took my divorce to a level of anger which caused major suffering of my minor children,” the court said in quoting from an online review. “The contract she submitted to the courts for her fees were four times her original quote, and pages of the original had been exchanged to support her claims. Only the signature page was the same.”
“No integrity,” another post claimed. “Will say one thing and do another. Her fees outweigh the truth.”
“I accepted an initial very fair offer from my ex. Mrs. Giustibelli convinced me to ‘crush’ him,” according to yet another review.
After a nonjury trial, Broward Circuit Judge Michael Gates sided with Giustibelli and awarded $350,000 in punitive damages. The reviews have been deleted, but Blake’s blog resurfaced briefly in early February before being disabled.
Blake and Birzon challenged Gates’ ruling. Giustibelli said she settled for $50,000 with Birzon, who backed out of the appeal.
“After briefs were filed and the court spent considerable time entertaining the issues raised, Birzon filed a notice that he and the appellee had settled the matter and that he was withdrawing his appeal,” Ciklin wrote. “Blake did not join in the notice. We note that even if she had, we would not have dismissed the appeal.”"