By now, nearly everyone who uses the Internet has heard of the website Yelp, where users review businesses and restuarants for the benefit of future consumers. Reviews on Yelp have actually become a big deal, as small business owners fear a negative review could significantly impact their ability to attract new customers. Things reached a messy point, where businesses would sometime attempt to buy fake, positive reviews to boost their average, while some reviewers would attempt to exploit the power of the review to garner preferential treatment from restaurants, etc. (in fact, this was spoofed in a South Park episode).
But now the pendulum seems to have swung in a different direction entirely, and some businesses have begun using non-disparagement clauses to shield themselves from the possibility of having a negative review written. These types of clauses have been tough to uphold in court, and in states like California, they’re outright illegal, but that doesn’t mean local businesses elsewhere won’t try the same tactics. Unfortunately for Robert and Michelle Duchouquette, their pet sitter (seriously!) decided to use this exact strategy.
The Reader’s Digest version of the story is that the Duchouquettes hired a company called Prestigious Pets, weren’t particularly happy with their experience (from cloudy fish bowls to billing issues), and opted to leave their review on Yelp. Seems reasonable, right?
Prestigious Pets didn’t agree, and first sent a cease and desist order, followed by a lawsuit in the amount of $6,766. I hear you can buy a really good pet sitter for that kind of money.
While the story of the Duchouquettes isn’t over yet, they aren’t the first case of consumers running afoul of these sorts of non-disparagement clauses. The most notable case might be of the company KlearGear, which ultimately itself was ordered to pay $306,000 for suing one of its customers.
The good news in all of this is that there is legislation being worked on to end these types of shenanigans once and for all. It’s actually been passed by the Senate and is being considered in the House of Representatives. Though it might not directly help the Duchouquettes, it’ll hopefully ensure that future consumers don’t have to worry about backlash stemming from leaving critical reviews.