BUCKTOWN — A Bucktown realty company has failed in its legal efforts to discover the identity of an alleged tenant who was criticizing it online.
In a case that's being heralded as a win for First Amendment rights in online freedom of speech, a state Appellate Court panel upheld a Cook County judge's ruling that comments made in an online Yelp.com posting did not “meet the criteria of defamatory material” because they were opinion and not fact.
The saga began after a Yelp.com user known only as "Diana Z., Chicago, IL" posted a one-out-of-five-star review in May 2011 that criticized Beal Properties' rent-collection practices. She also said she was treated unfairly by a customer service representative.
By Diana Z.'s account, a person on the other end of the line at her landlord's realty office was "one of the rudest persons I have ever spoken to in my entire life!"
Diana Z. ends her review with five ways that her interaction with Beal Properties "has made her a better person," including that "contracting herpes doesn't seem as horrible."
While Diana Z's review is no longer accessible on Yelp.com, 55 user reviews for Beal Properties show an average of one star out of five.
Seven months after Diana Z's review was posted, Brompton Building LLC,, a real estate property company on the northern edge of Bucktown at 2320 N. Damen Ave. filed a petition with the Cook County Circuit Court in December 2011 requesting permission to subpoena Yelp.com for the identity of the user.
The petition charged Diana Z. with "defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage."
Cook County Judge Kathy Flanagan denied the request to subpoena Yelp! Inc. under grounds that opinion is not defamation. Additionally, Flanagan ruled that the name of the company primarily mentioned in the online review by Diana Z. is Beal Properties, which is the former manager of the property.
In a ruling issued Jan. 31, a panel of three First District Appellate Court justices agreed with Flanagan that the online commenter's statements were opinions and were not defamatory, and ruled the judge was right in refusing to order Yelp to turn over the user's identity.
Beal Properties, which shares the same address at 2320 N. Damen Ave. in Bucktown as Brompton Building LLC, did not respond to multiple requests from DNAinfo.com for comment.
Brompton and Beal now operate under the name Apartments Management Group and share the same address and phone number. An intercom call box on site at the 2320 N. Damen Ave. address lists only Beal Properties as the tenant.
The company owns and manages dozens of properties, primarily in Lincoln Park and Lakeview.
Technology lawyer and blogger Evan Brown closely followed the Brompton Building LLC v. Yelp! Inc., case and said Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects Yelp and websites like them, such as Facebook, from responsibility for comments posted by their users.
"Being able to speak anonymously online is a critically important interest that we all have," Brown said.
"It's a good thing we have the provision in federal law. A lot of social media sites we love would not survive. They would get sued out of existence," Brown said.
Andy Ahitow, founder of Chicago Apartment Finders, has worked with Beal Properties for about 10 years and described it as "one of the largest apartment companies in Lakeview and Lincoln Park as well as one of the best values."
Ahitow's company works as a third-party broker to lease 6,000 apartments each year, and it owns and manages 1,500 rental units.
Negative Yelp reviews are common for realty companies, including his own, Ahitow said.
"We take Yelp reviews with a grain of salt. They're not all 100 percent accurate and people with positive experience, they just don't go on Yelp," Ahitow said.
Ahitow's firm recently hired Reputation.com to assist with managing its online reviews.
Brent Franson, vice president of sales for Reputation.com, said real estate companies are one of his firm's top clients, after automotive, medical and hospitality clients.
"Anybody can post anything about anybody on the Internet. That's a blessing and a curse," Franson said.
Based in Silicon Valley, Reputation.com is a privately-held company that's "growing rapidly," Franson said.
Reputation.com charges from $50 to $500 monthly depending on the level of involvement to "help individuals and businesses manage what's said about them online." The company pulls reviews and mentions from social and online media sites such as Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, blogs and newspaper articles.
Franson, who made it clear he is "no legal expert," said successfully suing over a bad online review is difficult.
"If you are in business for any meaningful amount of time, you should be able to ask the majority of customers to post a review of you online without worrying about it," Franson said.
Franson added, "a bad review can be a good moment of clarity for an organization."