False Online Review by the Client against the Lawyer is Libel
District Court of Appeal of The State Of Florida Fourth District, on January 6, while deciding the appeal No. 4d14-3231, titled Copia Blake And Peter Birzon, Appellants, V. Ann-Marie Giustibelli, P.A., And Ann-Marie Giustibelli, Individually, Appellees , affirmed and upheld, with a remarkable opinion, the award of punitive damages of $350,000 awarded by the trial court, the Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, to the Appellee Ann-Marie Giustibelli
Attorney Giustibelli represented her client Copia Blake against her husband Peter Birzon in a dissolution of marriage proceeding . This Attorney Client relationship between Giustibelli and her client Blake was broken after some time and after this breakdown the Client Blake and oddly, Birzon (her husband) as well, took to the internet to post defamatory reviews of Giustibelli.
On this act of her client Blake the Attorney Giustibelli brought a suit, pleading a count for libel. She also brought counts for breach of contract and for attorney’s fees, alleging that Blake still owed her money related to the divorce representation.
As mentioned in this judgment Blake’s and Birzon’s posted internet reviews contained the following statements:
This lawyer represented me in my divorce. She was combative and explosive and took my divorce to a level of anger which caused major suffering of my minor children. She insisted I was an emotionally abused wife who couldn’t make rational decisions which caused my case to drag on in the system for a year and a half so her FEES would continue to multiply!! She misrepresented her fees with regards to the contract I initially signed. The contract she submitted to the courts for her fees were 4 times her original quote and pages of the original had been exchanged to support her claims, only the signature page was the same. Shame on me that I did not have an original copy, but like an idiot . . . I trusted my lawyer. Don’t mistake sincerity for honesty because I assure you, that in this attorney’s case, they are NOT the same thing. She absolutely perpetuates the horrible image of attorneys who are only out for the money and themselves. Although I know this isn’t the case and there are some very good honest lawyers out there, Mrs. Giustibelli is simply not one of the “good ones[.]” Horrible horrible experience. Use anyone else, it would have to be a better result.
No integrity. Will say one thing and do another. Her fees outweigh the truth. Altered her charges to 4 times the original quote with no explanation. Do not use her. Don’t mistake sincerity for honesty. In her case, they’re not at all the same. Will literally lie to your face if it means more money for her. Get someone else. . . . Anyone else would do a superior effort for you.
I accepted an initial VERY fair offer from my ex. Mrs. Giustibelli convinced me to “crush” him and that I could have permanent etc. Spent over a year (and 4 times her original estimate) to arrive at the same place we started at. Caused unnecessary chaos and fear with my kids, convinced me that my ex cheated (which he didn’t), that he was hiding money (which he wasn’t), and was mad at ME when I realized her fee circus had gone on long enough and finally said “stop[.]” Altered her fee structures, actually replaced original documents with others to support her charges and generally gave the kind of poor service you only hear about. I’m not a disgruntled ex-wife. I’m just the foolish person who believes that a person’s word should be backed by integrity. Not even remotely true in this case. I’ve had 2 prior attorneys and never ever have I seen ego and monies be so blatantly out of control.
Both Blake and Birzon admitted to posting the reviews on various internet sites. The evidence showed that Blake had agreed to pay her attorney the amount reflected on the written retainer agreement—$300 an hour. Blake and Birzon both admitted at trial that Giustibelli had not charged Blake four times more than what was quoted in the agreement.
Circuit Court for the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, Broward County heard and decided this Case No. 12-22244 (12). After a non-jury trial, the trial court awarded the appellee, attorney Ann-Marie Giustibelli, damages in this libel and breach of contract case. The court entered judgment in favor of Giustibelli and awarded punitive damages of $350,000.
At this the Copia Blake and Peter Birzon filed an appeal before the District Court Of Appeal Of The State Of Florida Fourth District in which Copia Blake, Kansas City, MO, and Peter Birzon, Weston, represented pro se and Ann-Marie Giustibelli, Plantation, for Appellees.
After briefs were filed Birzon filed a notice that he and the Appellee had settled the matter and that he was withdrawing his appeal. Blake did not join in the notice. The court observed about this as:
“ We note that even if she had, we would not have dismissed the appeal.”
The appellate court was very well aware of and understand the importance of this issue in the legal profession. The court observed:
“ One issue Blake and Birzon raised involves the application of free speech protections to reviews of professional services posted on the internet. We affirm in all respects, but this issue merits discussion as it presents a scenario that will likely recur, and the public will benefit from an opinion on the matter.”
Few quotes from this judgment:
“Both Blake and Birzon admitted to posting the reviews on various internet sites. The evidence showed that Blake had agreed to pay her attorney the amount reflected on the written retainer agreement—$300 an hour. Blake and Birzon both admitted at trial that Giustibelli had not charged Blake four times more than what was quoted in the agreement. The court entered judgment in favor of Giustibelli and awarded punitive damages of $350,000.”
“On appeal, Blake and Birzon argue that their internet reviews constituted statements of opinion and thus were protected by the First Amendment and not actionable as defamation. We disagree. “[A]n action for libel will lie for a ‘false and unprivileged publication by letter, or otherwise, which exposes a person to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy or which causes such person to be avoided, or which has a tendency to injure such person in [their] office, occupation, business or employment.”
“Here, all the reviews contained allegations that Giustibelli lied to Blake regarding the attorney’s fee. Two of the reviews contained the allegation that Giustibelli falsified a contract. These are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false”
Statutory laws of Florida is currently codified in 48 titles. Chapter 836 of Title XLVI deals with Defamation; Libel; Threatening Letters And Similar Offenses. This chapter defines Libel as:
“836.02 Must give name of the party written about.—
(1) No person shall print, write, publish, circulate or distribute within this state any newspaper, magazine, periodical, pamphlet, or other publication of any character, either written or printed, wherein the alleged immoral acts of any person are stated or pretended to be stated, or wherein it is intimated that any person has been guilty of any immorality, unless such written or printed publication shall in such article publish in full the true name of the person intended to be charged with the commission of such acts of immorality.”
The full judgement Copia Blake and Peter Birzon v.AnnMarie Giustibelli, P.A., and AnnMarie Giustibelli,individually may be found at the below link:
The writer is the Managing Partner Intellectual property Logium.