Lawyers' suit over site's legal ratings dismissed
A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by two Seattle attorneys against a Web site that rates lawyers, saying that its opinions...
Seattle Times staff reporter
A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by two Seattle attorneys against a Web site that rates lawyers, saying that its opinions are just that — opinions — and are protected as free speech.
Lawyers John Henry Browne and Alan Wenokur had sued Avvo.com, alleging the site was engaging in unfair and deceptive practices by falsely claiming to be objective, reliable and factual. They sought to have the lawsuit certified as a class action as Avvo.com has expanded its ratings to attorneys in New York, Chicago, Houston and elsewhere.
Browne also sought monetary damages, claiming his rating of 5.7 on a scale of 10 had damaged his reputation and cost him clients.
U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik found that the opinions found on the site were "absolutely protected" by the First Amendment. In addition, he ruled, the Web site does not pretend that the information it provides is anything but subjective and advisory, and as such does not violate the Washington Consumer Protection Act.
"Neither the nature of the information provided nor the language used on the Web site would lead a reasonable person to believe that the ratings are a statement of actual fact," Lasnik wrote.
Telephone messages left with Browne and Wenokur were not returned Tuesday night.
Mark Britton, the chief executive officer at Avvo.com and the former general counsel at Expedia.com, said the ruling means the site will continue to expand its research and ratings. At the same time, it has "turned off" the numerical ratings for most lawyers and now gives a more generalized rating. The lawsuit, he said, has been a "sideshow" that has detracted from his efforts to help consumers searching for legal advice.
Browne and Wenokur claimed that the Avvo.com system is unfair and easily manipulated. Moreover, its system makes no sense: They pointed out that Britton had a higher rating than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Since then, Avvo.com has stopped including judges in its system.
Lasnik used that point to make another one: that the ratings can't be taken seriously.
Recently, he said in a footnote, he was ranked among the top 500 judges in the U.S. by a magazine called Lawdragon, which placed weight on the fact that Lasnik has quoted Bob Dylan in opinions.
"What can one say about such nonsense?" the judge asked.
"Rather than see the Avvo ratings for what they are — 'that and $1.50 will get you a ride on Seattle's new South Lake Union Streetcar' — plaintiffs Browne and Wenokur want to make a federal case out of the number assigned to them," Lasnik wrote.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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