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Tampa lawyer loses a round in bid to unmask anonymous online critic

TAMPA — A Tampa divorce lawyer has lost a second round in her attempt to unmask the identity of an anonymous writer who criticized her on the lawyer-review website Avvo.com.

A three-judge panel for the Washington state Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Deborah Thomson of the Women's Law Group in Carrollwood did not provide enough evidence to force Avvo, which is based in Seattle, to disclose her critic's name.

Thomson, 44, said she expected the ruling, but at least now she knows the next steps she needs to take to pursue her libel case against her critic.

"Now that I have this guidance, I am able to amend my complaint to provide the evidence the court needs and follow up that way," she said Tuesday.

Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, based in Washington, D.C., welcomed the decision, saying it determined that anonymous online reviewers are entitled to basic First Amendment protections.

Founded by consumer crusader Ralph Nader, Public Citizen contended that Thomson should have to show she was likely to win the libel case she has filed in Hillsborough County before she could reveal her critic, known only as Jane Doe.

"If the rule is that it's easy to say something nice anonymously but harder to say something negative anonymously, the marketplace of ideas is going to get skewed, and that's not good for the public," Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy said.

Thomson's case got its start in September 2013, when someone identifying themselves only as "a divorce client" criticized her on Avvo.

"I am still in court five years after Ms. Thomson represented me during my divorce proceedings," it said. "Her lack of basic business skills and detachment from her fiduciary responsibilities has cost me everything. She failed to show up for a nine-hour mediation because she had vacation days. She failed to subpoena documents that are critical to the division of assets in any divorce proceeding. In fact, she did not subpoena any documents at all. My interests were simply not protected in any meaningful way."

In a response that Avvo posted below the complaint, Thomson said her critic "was not an actual client of mine."

"This is a personal attack from someone that I know," she said.

Five years before, she said, she worked at a law firm where "any cases were not my own." She said courts have procedural safeguards in place to ensure that cases don't drag on. She also said a mediation would not have taken place if an attorney didn't show up, and mediations are not scheduled for set blocks of time as described.

Thomson's other 10 reviews on Avvo are all positive, with headlines such as "great job," "trustworthy good lawyer" and "Highly recommended professional!"

In May 2014, Thomson sued her Jane Doe critic for defamation in Hillsborough County Circuit Court and issued a subpoena to Avvo seeking the writer's identity.

A judge in Washington denied Thomson's request to force Avvo to name Jane Doe. The reason: She hadn't provided enough information to establish that Doe's comments were false and defamatory.

Anonymous speech has a long history of protection under the First Amendment, and the Washington court ruled that Thomson needed to do more to back up her claims that the anonymous criticism had damaged her before a court could require Avvo to turn over user information.

"Disclosing a speaker's identity is a harm that cannot be reversed," Washington Appeals Judge Marlin J. Applewick wrote. "Imposing a higher standard ensures that a speaker's identity is not disclosed in a 'silly or trivial' case."

With its ruling, Washington became the 13th state to weigh in and provide standards for what plaintiffs have to show before they can pierce the veil of anonymity for an online critic.

Florida courts have yet to address the question, Levy said.

"I'd love to find a good Florida case to litigate the issue," he said.

Though the ruling came as no surprise, Thomson said the requirement to provide evidence up front to support her case against an anonymous critic sets up a Catch-22.

"It doesn't make sense that you have to prove your case before you even have the evidence that you need to prove your case," she said.

Avvo, however, said the ruling will protect consumers.

"Whether they're leaving reviews on Amazon or commenting on an op-ed in their local paper, consumers have a right to protect their anonymity online and to freely express their opinions on the products and services provided by businesses," Avvo general counsel Josh King said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

"This case helps set a precedent for consumers' legal rights when expressing themselves online," King said. At Avvo, "we need to protect and provide the ability to comment on the quality and delivery of professional services without fear of a lawsuit from a disgruntled attorney."

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