Interesting column by John Kelly on the Washington Post about 2 different homeowners being sued by the same home improvement contractor for defamation. Monica Hammock is being sued by Stephen C. Sieber, owner of the SCS Contracting Group operating out of Maryland for $6 million “charging that she made false and defamatory statements on Angie’s List with the intent of damaging his reputation.” Another reviewer, John Poole, is also being sued.
Interestingly, Angie’s List is not being sued.
Sieber said that he’d like to sue Angie’s List but that his attorney tells him it’s protected. So he’s going after Hammock and Poole instead.
This surprised me … because when I consulted with a lawyer recently about related issues, reviews and defamation came up for discussion. My lawyer said to be wary, that a review site could possibly be held responsible for “promulgating” the defamation of a bad review.
Maybe Angie’s List is protected by their standard User Agreement which states:
“I acknowledge and understand that I am solely responsible for all reporting information submitted by me to Angie’s List in connection with my membership, and that Angieâ€™s List bears no responsibility whatsoever for statements made by me or anyone acting on my behalf. I agree to defend and indemnify Angie’s List if it is finally determined that the reporting information I provided to Angie’s List was false and inaccurate.”
– Angie’s List standard User Agreement
If Angie’s List was a news site, then it would be protected under “freedom of the press” where to prove defamation, you must also prove malicious intent. Angie’s List didn’t write the reviews any more than any other published reviews so no malicious intent. But is Angie’s List the press? Probably not …
I emailed the writer John Kelly for more information. Why is Angie’s List protected from being sued? Mr. Kelly wrote back “… his lawyer told him that the FCC’s Communications Decency Act protects web sites …”. I did some digging and there seems to be something in this – the courts have upheld that the CDA of 1997 “creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service”. Well ya learn something new every day. Thanks John for the prompt reply.
With “social media” and the rise of the “review culture”, it’s easy to forget you are responsible for what you write on the web – reviews are commonplace now. But did you realize that every time you write a review online, the fine print says you are legally responsible, not the site hosting your review? They may “own” your content as soon as you press the submit button, but if someone complains, they will say you are responsible.
If what you have to say in the review is true, then it’s not defamation. But it’s still a stressful – and expensive – situation to be in. The article mentions that Angie’s List “might help with Hammock and Poole’s legal bills”.
Let’s just say I’ve spent some time in the home improvement review business in my former life. From direct experience (stats!), the majority of homeowner reviews are positive. Writing bad reviews is not something homeowners take lightly. It wasn’t unknown for a homeowner to have a bad contractor experience, write a review about it, then have second thoughts before publishing. Other times homeowners have changed their minds after being contacted by the contractor or a lawyer. If the contractor handled the situation as a “customer service” matter, homeowners often upgraded the review of their own accord because of the efforts made to resolve the matter. So based on first-hand experience, bad reviews are more likely to be underreported, not the other way around.
Yet Mr. Sieber had bad reviews from unconnected Angie’s List reviewers. That’s a red flag for me. Furthermore:
In 1990, Sieber was the subject of a segment on ABC’s “Primetime Live” in which Diane Sawyer wondered whether he should be dubbed “the Contractor From Hell.” In 1992, after complaints from homeowners, he signed a settlement with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, agreeing to cease home improvement work for three years.
Sieber told me that he’d rather not comment on his Montgomery problems. “That goes back to a company long, long ago that has nothing to do with [the current case],” he said.
Big red flag. He says that stuff is way in the past. And Ms. Hammock’s problems occurred in 2003.
Well what about this Better Business Bureau Reliability Report that says Mr. Sieber has had 5 complaints lodged in the last 36 months?? To be fair, most of these have been resolved and no complaints in the last 12 months. But overall, there seems to be a trend here.
The irony? Mr. Sieber was interviewed by another writer from the Washington Post about homeowner-contractor relationships just a few months ago, not as an offender but as a contractor commentator. Uh, doesn’t the Washington Post check references? Kidding!
Anyway, here’s what he had to say about the homeowner-contractor relationship:
“It’s sort of like a marriage,” said Stephen Sieber, owner of SCS Contracting Group in Burtonsville. “There’s a lot of different people and a lot of different variables. It’s a challenging situation.”
Sounds like Mr. Sieber is in need of a little “marriage counseling”, and then some.