PORTLAND, Ore — The world of online reviews can be a contentious space with complaints and grievances filling up web pages and discussion boards.
Now, an Oregon man’s dispute about a custom-built home has sparked a lawsuit over what consumers can post online and how businesses can protect their reputations.
Adair Homes is suing Wes Brooks for defamation after he posted critical comments about the Vancouver-based company on Facebook. The lawsuit demands $550,000 in damages, claiming Adair Homes lost prospective sales because of the negative online reviews. Additionally, Adair Homes wants Brooks to shut down his public Facebook group, “Quality of Adair Homes.”
Wes Brooks hired Adair Homes to build a new house on his rural property outside of Pendleton in late 2017. A fire destroyed his old home.
Brooks was excited about moving his family into a larger, modern home. His wife, Ashley is pregnant.
“We went to Adair hoping they could help us with our dream,” explained Brooks.
Brooks said right away, there were problems with construction and unmet promises.
“This has been a nightmare, not a dream,” said Brooks. “There’s nothing dreamy about this process that we went through. This company has made everything difficult.”
For months, Brooks squabbled with Adair Homes over some of the work done on his home. He wasn’t happy with the workmanship or construction.
Adair claims the project passed final building inspection and Brooks still owes the company roughly $175,000 for its work. The two sides are currently in arbitration over the financial dispute.
Brooks decided to share his frustration online. In February, he created a public Facebook group called “Quality of Adair Homes,” which included comments, photos and video of his home. More than 250 people have since joined the Facebook group. Several customers shared their own experiences with Adair Homes.
“I felt there were probably other people out there that had the same situation happen to them,” said Brooks. “I thought it was time to create some kind of group to discuss these issues and see what could be done about them.”
Adair Homes disagreed with some of the comments Brooks posted on the Facebook group. In March, Adair Homes filed a lawsuit against Brooks in Umatilla Circuit Court. The complaint alleged the Facebook group contains false and defamatory statements.
The company further claimed it lost two sales and suffered damages totaling $550,000. The suit asks that Brooks to remove or delete the Facebook group.
“We absolutely believe in and support the right of customers to have opinions and to express those opinions in any forum, but there’s another side to that coin,” said Steve Nordstrom, vice president of operations for Adair Homes, Inc.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of people over the course of 50 years that have worked to build a company based on integrity and simply doing the right thing and they have rights, too,” said Nordstrom. “They have the right not to have untrue statements published about them that they have no way to respond to.”
In the complaint, Adair Homes cited specific examples of what it believes are false and inaccurate statements on the Facebook page, including complaints by Brooks about the sizing of the HVAC system, subcontractors “fudging the numbers,” and items “still not fixed.”
Nordstrom admits all businesses will face some level criticism. He believes this situation is different because it is playing out on Facebook where the author has complete control.
“If someone from the business tries to respond to something or correct misinformation that can be deleted. If other customers want to post positive information on that page those can also be deleted,” said Nordstrom. “We don’t think that’s fair."
When asked if anyone from Adair Homes has posted or replied to criticism on the “Quality of Adair Homes” Facebook page, Nordstrom declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Facebook claims it is not responsible and not liable to act on the comments or statements posted on Facebook that are believed to be defamatory.
“Facebook is not in a position to adjudicate the truth or falsity of statements made by third parties,” the company explained on its website.
Brooks is a disabled Army veteran and a volunteer firefighter. He admits he’s not one to give up despite facing a lawsuit that could leave him and his family bankrupt.
Brooks believes he is exercising his constitutional right to free speech by sharing opinions about his home construction on Facebook.
“I don’t think it is a smear campaign. I think it is an honest review of the work they did on my house,” said Brooks. “If a company is not doing what they promised the consumer should be able to get on Yelp or Google or Facebook.”
Brooks and his lawyer, Laura Eckstein of La Grande, tried to have the suit dismissed under Oregon’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP law. The 2001 Oregon law is designed to safeguard speech in public forums.
On Sept. 24, Umatilla Circuit Court Judge Eva Temple denied the anti-SLAPP motion. Judge Temple felt Brooks’ statements were not limited to opinion.
“He specifically states facts that are provable. Adair argues these statements of fact are false,” wrote Judge Temple.
The decision was an early victory for Adair Homes, allowing the company to move forward with its defamation lawsuit.
In 2016, the Oregon Supreme Court provided clarification on what is and what is not acceptable when writing online consumer reviews.
“Oregon is highly protective of speech,” said attorney Linda Williams, who has argued on behalf of an online commenter before the state’s high court.
Williams said her client, Christopher Liles, was simply expressing his honest opinion when he posted a critical online review about a wedding venue. Liles posted on Google Reviews saying the venue was a “disaster” and accused one of its owners as “two-faced,” “crooked” and “rude.”
The Oregon Supreme Court found that Liles’ online review was protected free speech because he was sharing his strong negative personal impressions and a reader of his online review would understand that. The high court found that Liles wasn’t serious when calling one of the owners a “crook.”
The ruling however does not give consumers free rein to write anything they want on review sites like Yelp or Google Reviews. The First Amendment protect reviews if they are expressing opinions.
In Oregon, the bright line is this: opinions, no matter how derogatory, are protected speech. False statements of fact that can be proven untrue are not protected.
“Ask yourself every time whether you are saying something that you might be wrong about — that is factual in nature — and that somebody could successfully sue you for,” warned First Amendment attorney Duane Bosworth of Davis Wright Tremaine.
Steve Nordstrom of Adair Homes explained the lawsuit filed against Brooks is not about money; instead, he said the company is trying to protect its reputation.
“We’re defending our employees,” said Nordstrom. “We believe they have a right to be heard and right to be defended.”
The question is, is it worth the fight knowing that a big-money lawsuit cold draw much more, unwanted attention to a single critic in rural eastern Oregon?