DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - "I had no idea this could happen, it's frightening," said Michelle Duchouquette.
Michelle Duchouquette and her husband Robert were sued earlier this year after writing a one-star review about Prestigious Pets in Dallas. The review said she didn't like the extra $5 fee to walk her dogs and that the fish bowl water appeared cloudy with possibly too much food.
"I don't think it was hateful, it didn't have bad intent, it's my opinion of a business," said Duchouquette. After a motion filed by the Duchouquette's attorney, the first suit was dropped and a new lawsuit was filed against the couple by Prestigious Pets. "When I say it out loud saying I'm getting sued up to $1 million over this review, I can't believe it," said Duchouquette.
The new suit alleges the review violated the non-disparagement clause in the contract and that the negative attention has left the business a "shell of its former success".
Prestigious Pets is seeking damages of $200,000 to $1 million.
"This is an outrage and they need a lawyer," said Paul Levy with Public Citizen in Washington D.C. The consumer advocates are representing the Plano couple pro-bono along with their Texas counsel, Nicole Williams. Williams in an anti-trust and trade regulation attorney at Thompson & Knight.
CBS11's Cristin Severance traveled to their office to D.C. to talk with Levy about the newest lawsuit. "The non-disparagement clause says that you shouldn't do anything to damage the reputation of the company. You'd think that what really damaged the reputation of the company was bringing the suit in the first place," said Levy.
Public Citizen was involved in the most well-known non-disparagement clause lawsuit in the country -- Palmer vs. Kleargear. The company Kleargear fined a couple $3,500 over a negative review and dinged their credit. The Palmers sued Kleargear and won the case. The Kleargear case is one reason why Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota took up the issue and sponsored the Consumer Review Freedom Act.
Thune said the Duchouquette case is the latest example how people's rights continue to be taken away. "It puts a big gag order on people," said Thune.
The Consumer Review Freedom Act has passed in the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. "Basically it would eliminate these non-disparagement clauses for these form contracts that people sign," said Thune.
Both Thune and Levy said these lawsuits and clauses have a chilling effect on all reviewers and review sites. "The only reason we're still in this and we're still talking about it, is because I really want it to not happen again. You should be able to post an opinion," said Duchouquette.
Yelp is now warning consumers if a business has sued reviewers. The review site went live Wednesday night with a brand new consumer alert system. Now, if a business has threatened or taken legal action against a Yelp reviewer, a special alert box is displayed on that businesses' Yelp page.
Yelp gave CBS11 the following statement:
Yelp exists to empower and protect consumers, and we're pushing hard for federal laws to protect consumers from business owners who file meritless lawsuits against their customers. Instead of attacking consumer free speech, we always advise business owners to unlock their free tools at biz.yelp.com and respond diplomatically to their negative reviews.
Prestigious Pets' Response
CBS11 wanted to interview David and Kalle McWhorter of Prestigious Pets about dropping the first claim and filing the newest lawsuit. Kalle McWhorter is named as the plaintiff in the most recent lawsuit. Her attorney sent this statement which reads in part:
"Due to the nature of this case, Prestigious Pets and Mrs. McWhorter have no statement. Their position on the issues in dispute are set out in their pleading."
David McWhorter sent CBS11 a series of emails from the Prestigious Pets account when the first claim was filed. CBS11 tried to interview David McWhorter but he drove away without answering any questions.
David McWhorter's emails to regarding the first case state in part:
We are honest people seeking protection from dishonest individuals, not other honest ones. Fair and honest feedback is not the issue here. Keep in mind that JP court costs nothing to either party and is a free public service. Asking for a judge to help us review any issue is not a charge/overcharge, a scam, a service that wasn't provided, or a refund that is owed. A judge's decision may not even be in our favor. Or we may even choose not to follow through.
Being dog walkers, we definitely do not have legal degrees, and had to seek assistance from professionals for a service agreement. We typically spend up to, and even more than an hour sometimes, meeting and going over questions/concerns with any new potential customers in person. Just as a customer is free to choose if they'd like to use our service, we also choose if we feel comfortable being able to provide it, and reserve the right to refuse. We may not be the right fit for everyone, and so are extremely upfront to ensure that expectations align.
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