Have you been falsely attacked on social media, received a defamatory one star review or fake Google review on your business profile, or been defamed on a popular cheater or public shaming website, and are now considering hiring an attorney?
Not all lawyers handle EVERY type of legal issue. Most attorneys practice a particular area of law – so the lawyer who might handle a wrongful termination claim probably cannot (or should not) help you with online defamation.
At Minc Law, we focus specifically on online defamation: a legal issue that has proliferated since social media and smartphones became commonplace in the early 2000s. We have litigated thousands of defamation cases across the globe and removed tens of thousands of pieces of defamatory content from the internet, so we know the most pressing questions defamation clients have about defamation lawsuits.
In the interest of helping you make an informed decision BEFORE hiring an online defamation attorney to file an internet defamation lawsuit, below is a list of five questions and answers about defamation suits, organized into five broad categories:
- The purpose of an internet defamation lawsuit;
- The cost of an online defamation lawsuit;
- What can be gained if you win your online defamation lawsuit;
- What else should be considered before filing an online defamation lawsuit;
- Alternatives to an online defamation lawsuit.
Below, we start with an overview of what online defamation is and the purpose of filing a defamation lawsuit.
Question 1: What is the Purpose of an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
Before understanding the purpose of an online defamation lawsuit, it is critical to first determine whether you even have a defamation claim to litigate. Granted, an experienced internet defamation attorney will be able to help you answer this question – but it is worth doing your research on what defamation is before you schedule an initial consultation.
Below are the online defamation basics to take into consideration before you hire an online defamation attorney.
What is Defamation?
While all states have slightly different defamation laws, there are some general rules when it comes to the definition of defamation. All states require that you prove certain elements to show that you have been defamed (and to win your lawsuit). Those elements are:
- A false statement has been published, either orally or in writing,
- The statement identifies you or a business which you own,
- The statement must have been seen or heard by someone other than the source and the victim (a third party),
- The statement was made with at least a negligent level of intent,
- The statement caused damage to you or your business, and
While the definition of defamation may seem fairly clear cut, most people still have questions. To truly understand how a defamation lawsuit works, it is important to know the difference between defamation and other similar (often confused) terms.
What is the Difference Between Libel, Slander, & Defamation?
Among non-lawyers, the terms libel, slander, and defamation are often used interchangeably. However, they have very different meanings. Defamation is the umbrella term that covers both libel and slander, libel is defamation that is written, and slander is defamation that is spoken.
Below is a chart comparing the key differences between libel and slander.
|The defamatory statement is written or published.
||The defamatory statement was made orally.
|Can be found in print media such as newspapers, magazines, blog posts, social media, and websites, etc.
||Can be found in television programs, in public gathering places, face-to-face, and voicemails, etc.
|Can be a crime, a civil wrong, or both.
||Can be a crime, a civil wrong, or both.
What is Online Defamation?
Defamation can occur both online and offline. Online defamation pertains to defamatory content that was specifically transmitted via the internet. This can include social media defamation (like libelous public shaming on social media), online newspapers, blogs, gossip forums, online consumer reviews, consumer complaint boards, and shaming and cheater websites.
Communications such as handwritten letters, text messages, phone calls, voicemails, face-to-face conversations, and unpublished articles are not established forms of online content. If you are dealing with defamatory offline content, we recommend contacting your local bar association or legal aid society for an appropriate referral.
In general, attorneys that concentrate on internet defamation may only be able to assist with online content. But, some online defamation attorneys can also help with claims involving books or podcasts as well.
To illustrate the types of cases an online attorney can help with, I will provide two common online defamation examples. Please note that the following stories are fictional (the examples are not real clients or cases of our firm).
Example of an Actionable Online Defamation Claim
Bright Smiles is a dental practice based out of Cleveland, Ohio. Mary Smith is a former patient who was not particularly happy with the dental work she received and demanded a full refund. Bright Smiles offered a discount but did not give a full refund as Mary requested.
Mary then proceeded to create several fake Google reviews from her main account as well as many other aliases alleging that Bright Smiles had robbed her, injured her, and made her look like a horse. These defamatory remarks caused the Bright Smiles Google rating to go from a 5-star establishment to a 3-star one, drastically decreasing their online traffic and eventually, a loss of business.
Glassdoor Review Tip: If your business has discovered negative or fake Glassdoor reviews, there are three strategies you can use to get the review removed: (1) work with the original author to remove the review; (2) flag and report the review to Glassdoor; or (3) pursue legal action against the employee.
If your situation echoes this case at all, you might want to consult an online defamation attorney.
Example of a Non-Actionable Online Defamation Claim
After Thanksgiving dinner, Jennifer’s mother-in-law texts her that she believed her baked macaroni and cheese could have used some salt.
While it may be annoying to spend hours on food only to be nitpicked – this is not legally actionable. This type of dispute is better suited for your local advice column (because there are ways to deal with a rude mother-in-law that do not involve attorneys)!
What Can My Online Defamation Lawsuit Accomplish?
Sometimes people have glamorous ideas of what a lawsuit will look like and what can be accomplished in court. One of the first questions we ask all of our clients is, “What exactly do you want to accomplish?”
The decision to file a defamation lawsuit should not be taken lightly, so it is important to understand what you may be able to achieve (and not achieve) with litigation.
Below are some litigation pros and cons to consider before filing a defamation lawsuit.
Pros of Filing a Defamation Lawsuit
If you have an actionable claim for online defamation, there are several advantages of filing a lawsuit. First, a lawsuit can hold the defamer liable – ending the harassment and possibly resulting in monetary damages to compensate for your losses.
A lawsuit can also help identify an anonymous poster that has defamed you. Once you file suit, the defamer may want to avoid court and settle without the need for extensive litigation.
Most importantly, filing an online defamation lawsuit (and obtaining a court order) can result in the removal of the negative content. Once you get the defamatory content removed, you can restore and protect your reputation. At the end of the day, these are the results most clients are looking for and litigation is one of the most effective ways to accomplish these goals.
Cons of Filing a Defamation Lawsuit
As with virtually any lawsuit, there are some drawbacks. The litigation process is costly and will usually require an up-front down payment. Trials can be lengthy (and even more costly) if they are contested.
Also, if you are dealing with a news media defendant or a hosting platform (like Facebook or Twitter), the defamatory content may be privileged or protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
News Article Removal Tip: Getting negative news articles removed or retracted can be especially difficult. However, it is not impossible. If you want a news organization to remove a negative article about you, we recommend researching the editor. The editor is typically the final decision-maker when it comes to publishing, correcting or removing content, so you will want to appeal to their sensibilities.
Finally, a lawsuit might bring unwanted attention (known as the Streisand Effect) to otherwise personal issues.
Question 2: What is the Cost of an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
Once you have determined that you likely have a claim for online defamation, you will want to consider the costs involved in pursuing your claim.
How Much Do Litigation Services Cost for Online Defamation?
The cost of an online defamation suit varies depending on numerous factors. Some of the factors that influence legal costs are:
- Whether you are seeking monetary relief,
- If a defendant’s identity is known or unknown and requires the filing of a John Doe lawsuit,
- Whether a court order is necessary to remove the content in question,
- Amount of defamatory content online,
- Whether time is of the essence or not,
- Fees for local counsel, and
- Whether the case is contested by the other side.
Another variable impacting cost is the type of payment structure offered by your attorney. Common legal fee structures include:
- Retainer Fee: an up-front deposit or down payment that will cover future services rendered. Your attorney will bill hourly against this retainer until the funds are depleted. This is the most common payment structure for online defamation cases.
- Flat Fee: a pre-established fee for services that will not change throughout your representation. If you pay a flat fee of $3,000 you will not be charged more or less unless you execute a new retainer agreement. This type of fee structure is usually reserved for guaranteed removal services.
- Contingency Fee: a payment that is rendered on the condition of a certain result (e.g. “no fees unless you win!”). This is a common fee structure for certain areas of law like personal injury but is incredibly rare (if not non-existent) in the realm of online defamation.
For a more detailed overview of those factors, check out our article “How Much Does a Defamation Lawsuit Cost?”
Reasonable Fee Expectations
Even though the cost of most lawsuits is subject to many variables, most people want to know a ballpark figure. Average total case costs can be as low as $5,000–$7,500, but most fall between $14,000 and $16,000.
Contested cases can cost an average of $4,000 to $6,000 a month and between $30,000 to $60,000 for a trial if you see your case all the way through litigaton.
Let’s dive into these costs a little more for the sake of clarity. To start, we request a $7,500 retainer for hourly litigation services. This retainer amount is generally what is needed to cover the costs, fees, and initial expenses for the first 1-3 months of your lawsuit.
This retainer will go toward costs associated with an initial investigation, legal research, drafting the complaint, court filing fees, process server and local counsel fees, pre-suit demand letters, and subpoena costs. As you can see there is a lot of work to be done just to get a lawsuit started!
How Much Does It Cost to Remove Defamatory Online Content If You Do NOT File a Lawsuit?
Say you had a relationship that did not end on a high note and now your ex has made a defamatory YouTube video about their grievances toward you. Given the personal nature of the issue, you might not want to bring more attention to an already embarrassing ordeal.
Pursuing alternatives to litigation may achieve your goals, without the costs, hassle, or potential embarrassment of a lawsuit. While that may sound ideal, there are some drawbacks to resolving defamation disputes without litigation. If you do not file a lawsuit, you cannot collect on court-ordered judgments and you lose the ability to formally appeal your case if you do not get the outcome you want.
For some people, this may not be enough – so litigation is a more suitable alternative. At the end of the day, it will be up to you and your attorney whether litigation is the best strategy.
Fortunately, if you pursue litigation alternatives, you usually retain the ability to file a lawsuit if things do not proceed as expected.
On average, our hourly non-litigation services usually cost between $5,000 and $6,000. We often require a retainer of $3,500 to get started.
How Much Does It Cost to Remove Defamatory Statements?
Some people are not concerned with damages and simply want the defamatory statements removed. The good news is that you might be able to get defamatory statements removed without litigation.
The bad news is that most social media platforms and websites will not be liable for removing content without the cooperation of the original poster. But, there is a growing push to make social media companies liable for defamatory content posted on their platforms. Only time will tell if platforms will ever be held liable.
In general, it should cost less to remove content if you are not looking for monetary relief. What will matter is if the defendant cooperates, whether a court order is needed, and how much defamatory content needs to be removed.
At Minc Law, we offer guaranteed removals for certain content. Usually, this is content that is found at online shaming or cheater sites. Because we have dealt with these websites in the past, we understand exactly what their removal process looks like. Our guaranteed removal costs start at $1,500.
On average, most clients end up paying $2,500 for the removal of content from a single website.
You can find a complete list of websites that we offer guaranteed content removal services here.
Question 3: What Will I Gain if I Win an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
You probably would not want to sue someone if you did not stand to gain anything in the long run. After all, lawsuits can be costly and stressful.
Before you hire an online defamation lawyer, you should consider what you stand to gain – and if it is the most appropriate action to resolve your defamation issue.
How Will Winning an Online Defamation Lawsuit Improve My Reputation?
Even if you do not own your own business, your online reputation matters. Did you know that most businesses check your social media before making a hiring decision? Chances are you already knew that. But you may not realize that even potential romantic partners will often Google you before a date.
That is right: your online reputation stands to affect the most important aspects of your life.
If search results for your name yield negative or defamatory content, it could impact both your love life and your earning capacity. It stands to reason, then, that winning an online defamation lawsuit and removing negative online content could boost your reputation. When potential employers (or dates) search for you online, they will only find the non-defamatory information that you want them to find.
How Will Winning an Online Defamation Lawsuit Benefit My Business?
If you have a business, your online reputation arguably matters even more than an individual’s. Gone are the days when people patronized businesses simply because they are local or featured in the Yellow Pages.
Today, customers search out businesses online and they care about what they find. The importance of online reviews is ever increasing, and negative content can cause immeasurable damage. Defamatory content, in particular, has long been known to harm business owners (even before the internet). So, it behooves business owners to fight any negative content found online.
If false reviews and comments are hurting your business, a defamation lawsuit might be a lifeline to restore the name you have worked hard to establish. Not only can a lawsuit lead to the removal of negative content, but you can also be compensated for damages to your business’s reputation.
What Kind of Damages Are Awarded in a Defamation Lawsuit?
There are several different types of damages you can collect if you win a defamation lawsuit. In most online defamation cases, a victim can recover the following defamation damages:
- Actual or compensatory damages – which reimburse you for actual losses, emotional distress, and reputational harm
- Nominal damages – which reimburse you a minimal amount that acknowledges you have suffered a legal wrong even if you do not prove actual damages
- Punitive damages – which are awarded to punish and deter wrongful conduct.
However, we have learned that potential clients are rarely concerned with the legal terms for damages. Instead, clients want to know exactly how they are going to collect on a judgment.
If the defamer has a regular income, you might be able to garnish wages directly out of their paycheck. Granted, both states and the federal government dictate if, how, and when you can garnish wages. Usually, you can only garnish up to 25% of the defamer’s disposable income. Occasionally defendants have insurance coverage for defamation lawsuits that can also provide relief.
Unfortunately, you cannot garnish social security, disability, retirement, child support, and alimony payments.
If the defamer has a bank account, you may be able to collect a from their checking, savings, money market, or mutual funds. To levy someone’s account(s), you will need some information first (like the name of the bank, routing number, and the account number). An attorney can usually determine this information through the court, if necessary.
Funds such as public benefits, retirement plans, and insurance proceeds are still exempt if they are kept in a personal account.
If the defamer owns real estate, you may also be able to record a lien against their property to collect your judgment. Likewise, you may be able to collect other assets like an inheritance, personal property, and an ownership interest in a business.
Question 4: What Else Should I Consider Before Filing a Defamation Lawsuit?
Costs are not the only investment involved in a lawsuit. Contrary to what you may see on shows like Law & Order, lawsuits take quite a bit of time.
Before hiring an attorney, you might want to ask yourself if you are willing and able to be patient – because lawsuits are rarely a “quick fix.”
What Steps Are Involved in an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
Lawsuits involve several steps, each of which takes considerable time. If you proceed with a lawsuit, expect to work through the following procedures:
Pleadings are formal documents filed with the court and can consist of complaints, answers, responses, motions, amendments, and counterclaims. Most state and federal courts allow anywhere from 30-60 days for the defendant to respond to an initial complaint once it has been served upon them. However, this timeline can extend greatly if motions to dismiss are filed before the Defendant responds.
This is where all parties involved in a case get and disclose their evidence to decide if they should march towards trial or negotiate an early settlement.
State courts generally require discovery to be completed within 60-120 days after a pretrial conference (if applicable in your state) but motions for extension of time or stays can push this deadline back even further.
Sometimes during litigation, special motions are filed that cannot be bypassed without a 30-60-minute hearing. Litigants can be given months to file these motions.
Many judges only have a limited number of slots available for these types of hearings, so they need to be scheduled in advance, sometimes as far as six months out, depending on the judge’s calendar.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
Most states require ADR with a neutral third party before a trial is to take place.
This is the court’s last-ditch effort to make sure a matter cannot be settled before going in front of the judge. The most common forms of ADR are mediation and arbitration.
This is the final step of the litigation process and the most anticipated. There are six phases to a trial: choosing a jury, opening statements, witness testimony and examinations, closing arguments, jury instruction, and deliberation ending in a verdict.
The amount of time needed for a trial varies upon several different factors but usually takes between one and three weeks.
What Factors Might Make My Case More Complex?
There are several factors that might make your lawsuit even more complex than you think. Unfortunately, these complications can make a lawsuit even more lengthy and costly.
- Contested Cases: If the defamer has the time and money to challenge your lawsuit, your case could take longer.
- Monetary Damages: If you are seeking monetary relief such as payment for lost business, loss of income, or emotional distress – this adds complexity to your case. This is due to the potential requirement of expert witnesses like accountants and medical professionals.
- Anonymous Defendants: If your defamer is hiding behind internet anonymity, your attorney will most likely need to subpoena multiple websites, hosts, and online entities to identify an anonymous poster. This will become a longer process depending on how many entities (or how large they are).
Court Order Fact: Court orders are an official proclamation issued by a judge directing a person or business to undertake an action or refrain from performing a particular action. In some situations, online content can only be removed after obtaining a court order (like when the content was posted by an anonymous defendant).
Can a Lawsuit Bring More Attention to My Matter?
Another important consideration for those thinking of filing a lawsuit is whether you are prepared for more attention. Lawsuits are a matter of public record (except in special circumstances).
Consequently, your complaint, and even discovery records, could be accessible to the news media or the general public.
Unwanted attention is such a common issue in online defamation cases there is even a term for it. The Streisand Effect is the name given to the phenomenon where attempting to hide or censor a piece of information unintentionally publicizes the information more. In case you have not already guessed, the term originated when Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for sharing images of her home online.
Before the lawsuit, the image was only viewed six times, and two of those views were by Streisand’s attorneys. Not long after the suit was filed, the photo went viral, garnering more than a million views. Thus, the Streisand Effect was born – when her attempt to censor online content drew more attention than the content itself.
Fortunately, an experienced internet defamation attorney can help mitigate this risk by utilizing content removal strategies that will not draw unnecessary attention to the matter.
Question 5: What Are the Alternatives to an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
If this article has made you second-guess your desire to get involved in a lawsuit, you are not without other options! There are numerous alternatives to litigation that may save you some time and money while still accomplishing your goals.
How Can a Cease and Desist Letter Improve My Online Reputation?
Defamation cease and desist letters are often the first choice when responding to online defamation. If you know exactly who the defamer is and how to contact them, a cease and desist letter can notify them that they need to stop their illegal behavior.
Cease and desist letters can also put a defamer on notice that you have a lawyer, are taking the matter seriously, and are prepared to go to court if necessary.
Sometimes, a well-written cease and desist letter is all that is needed to get a defamer to remove their content. If so, you could save considerable time and money – as long as all you are looking for is the removal of content.
How Can a DMCA Takedown Notice Stop Online Defamation?
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protects intellectual property holders from online infringement. Put simply, you have the copyright to any of your creative works, including writings, images, and other forms of art (even if they are not registered).
If, for instance, someone shares a photo you have taken without your consent, you are protected by the DMCA. In that case, you can send a DMCA takedown notice to the defamer and/or the site where the content was shared, and they will need to remove the content. For a breakdown of a DMCA takedown process, we recommend checking out our article, “How to Send a DMCA Takedown Notice“.
The good news is that most sites comply with DMCA takedown notices without the need for litigation.
How Can Strategic Marketing Tactics Improve My Online Reputation?
In some cases, a lawsuit is just not the answer. Perhaps you need to remove the content from your search results ASAP because you are interviewing for a job, or you just cannot prove the legal elements of defamation. Either way, you may still have a shot at suppressing the negative content.
Online reputation management (ORM) services for individuals and businesses are a non-legal way to improve you or your business’s online reputation, usually through methods like content suppression, public relations, and brand building.
ORM encompasses producing positive content designed to show up on the first page of your Google search results. By doing this, you can bump negative content off of the first page and reduce the likelihood that anyone will find it. Of course, this method is not failsafe, so we typically only recommend it as a last resort. Follow this link to learn more about the differences between the differences between Online Reputation Management vs. Legal Services to remove online content.
Other Online Defamation Services
In some situations, Minc Law may not be the best fit. If that is the case, we are happy to recommend other top online defamation service providers. If you require reputation building services, link building, SEO, or a cybersecurity expert our online defamation law firm probably is not your best choice.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other service providers that specialize in each of those needs who may be able to help you for much less than the cost of litigation.
The Attorneys at Minc Law Are Here to Help
Now that you know which questions to ask yourself before hiring an internet defamation attorney, we hope you understand a lot more about online defamation (and your legal options).
“If you are doubting this place for your situation DO NOT ANYMORE!!! Minc Law and especially Dayra their Paralegal has brought peace back in to our lives!!! We had an issue that we tried to resolve with other agencies who would only drive it down the in to the search, and Minc Law was able to completely remove it from any search possible in less than a week!!! Thank you Minc Law and an extra special THANK YOU to Dayra!!! You guys are the best!!!!!!!”
Anonymous, 17th September, 2020
Should you decide that you are ready to speak with an attorney, you can contact the online defamation attorneys at Minc Law by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a chat representative, or filling out our contact form online.
We offer free, no-obligation consultations to help you decide how to best achieve your online reputation goals.
Do you still have questions about internet defamation and internet defamation attorneys? Make sure to check out our blog post answering the top eight most frequently asked questions about internet defamation lawyers.