Court Rules Glassdoor Must Identify Anonymous Reviewers

At the Broderick Saleen Law Firm, we have seen a recent rise in anonymous online defamation. Uncovering anonymous posters’ identity through discovery tools in a lawsuit can be tough. The recent ruling in the case of ZL Technologies v. Glassdoor helps to ensure that if plaintiffs can show the elements of their defamation case, then they will be able to compel websites to divulge identifying information about the posters.

In ZL v. Glassdoor, the California Court of Appeal ruled that online review website Glassdoor must release the identity of anonymous online reviewers because the victim was able to show each of the necessary elements of a defamation claim, and the reviews were not strictly opinion.

 

Facts of the Case

In the ZL v. Glassdoor case, individuals representing themselves as current or former employees posted seven anonymous negative reviews about ZL on Glassdoor’s website. Glassdoor runs a website for job seekers on which people can anonymously post statements about current or past employers.

ZL filed a lawsuit against the individuals who anonymously posted on Glassdoor, naming them as Doe defendants. The complaint alleged causes of action for libel per se and for online impersonation in violation of Penal Code §528.5 to the extent that any of the defendants was not actually a ZL employee.

Glassdoor objected in response to a subpoena from ZL requesting records identifying and providing contact information for the Doe defendants. Glassdoor contended that compulsory disclosure of the defendants’ identities would violate their free speech rights and their privacy rights; that the posted statements were “protected opinion, patently hyperbolic, not harmful to reputation” or uncontested statements of fact; that Glassdoor’s reputation would be harmed if it disclosed defendants’ identities; and that under Krinsky v. Doe 6 (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1154, ZL was obligated to make a showing the statements were libelous before it could compel disclosure.

The trial court denied ZL’s motion to compel the subpoena, finding that the reviews were primarily opinion and would not be considered reliable by the average person, stating the reviews were “similar to that written on bathroom walls – anonymous, angry, opinionated, and not very reliable”. The trial court found ZL had made an insufficient showing that defendants engaged in wrongful conduct causing harm to ZL.

The Court of Appeal disagreed and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

 

The Test for Compulsory Disclosure of an Anonymous Speaker’s Identity

The ZL Court noted that this case presents a conflict between a plaintiff’s right to employ a judicial process to discover the identity of an allegedly libelous speaker and the speaker’s First Amendment right to remain anonymous.

The ZL Court adopted the test set out in Krinsky v. Doe 6.  The Court held that a plaintiff must make a showing of the elements of defamation, including falsity, before disclosure of a defendant’s identity can be compelled.  The Court added the caveat that a plaintiff need only produce evidence of those material facts that are accessible to it, and that in cases of libel per se, actual damage need not be shown.

The Court further found that the trial court erred in deeming the reviews to be entirely protected opinion and found that six of the seven reviews contained factual assertions providing a legally sufficient basis for ZL’s claims.  The Court stated that “where an expression of opinion implies a false assertion of fact, the opinion can constitute actionable defamation.