There’s no question that apartment ratings and reviews sites are becoming a more accepted norm in the multifamily industry. Owners are encouraging tenants to leave strong reviews on apartment rating sites in hopes of driving more leads.
Across other industries, where the reviews can be a bit more harmful to a small business’s bottom line, they’re fighting back by suing customers for damages when they leave reputation-damaging reviews.
But as it becomes more damaging on the multifamily end, owners may fight back the same way.
“They do have legal remedy,” says Patrick Pettitt, lead attorney and founder of Hampton, Va.-based Sage Law Practice Group. “They do have legal tools at their disposal.”
Pettitt deals frequently with evictions and consumer law issues with property management firms, but the issue of defamation online is slowly propping up center stage. And the questions he receives always lead to the challenging difference between a negative opinion and an actual slanderous, defamatory comment.
Christopher Huntley normally deals with leasing, development, and some eviction work as lead attorney at Minneapolis, Mn.-based Huntley Law. But he has yet to see a multifamily owner filing suit against someone leaving bad reviews. And that’s largely because it’s unimportant in their eyes.
“It’s an interesting perspective,” he says. “But it probably wouldn’t matter too much, quite honestly.”
Although he admits that it has the potential for blowback in the industry, the rental market is making so much money now that some landlords don’t care.
They can sue for defamatory comments, but it may not be as successful because it’s just a forum. They can, however, get a court injunction to remove the statement online.
Depending on the property, it’s not worth it if it incurs high costs, Huntley says.
“What are they hoping to accomplish?” he says. “You have to weigh everything. Who’s even looking at these websites? It’s popular but the obligation of the tenant is much higher than the obligation to the landlord.”
Before Taking the Legal Route
It’s unclear how many tenants actually rely on online forums. For properties that are fairly minimal in maintenance and operations, a prospective tenant is more apt to trust what they see in front of them, versus what’s being said on a website.
Nonetheless, some visceral and negative complaints about living conditions or services may get a knee-jerk reaction from an owner and may be borderline defamatory, but it’s not quite harmful enough where it’s worth taking the legal route.
“You end up in a conundrum,” Pettitt says. “It’s not clearly a defamatory statement. And you’re not entirely confident in who the person is behind the posting.”
A court injunction has heavy overhead prices involved, so other non-legal solutions should be attempted first, before litigation even begins, Pettitt says. Attorneys can charge anywhere from $250 to $350 an hour in the Virginia market, and some cases can run about $6,000-to-$8,000 to get the lawsuit drafted and in court.
Owners should also consider the timeliness of judges in their state. In Virginia, the judges are slow to issue injunctions for online postings, Pettitt says. The case may also get stuck in federal court because the website is formed in a different state. You’ll have a federal judge looking at it, and with the standard for a federal injunction extremely high, it’s hard to get a second look.
Additionally, as he sees complaints coming from tenants primarily in Class B or C properties, Pettitt says that it’s difficult to get them to pay for damages, so suing for such and filing a judgment could be wasteful. And the embarrassment garnered from the press getting their hands on the public suit should be enough for an owner to think twice.
“Injunctions are rare,” he says. “While they look good on paper, pragmatism usually forces other approaches.”
When to Get Lawyers Involved
Damaging allegations aren’t complaints about bad customer service. But when a tenant makes a false criminal accusation, and all other non-legal routes have been pursued, an owner should begin a suit.
In Pettitt’s latest case, a woman alleged sexual assault from a specific member of her building’s maintenance team on a rating site. After being accused of non-compliancy with the tenant, the management team sent out formal demand letters and became aggressive.
Between maintenance logs and interviews, and knowing that the maintenance team worked in groups, they were confident that the particular maintenance member was never in her apartment. And because it was such a damaging allegation, they got her to take the post down, although they didn’t sue for damages.
The fairly quick process, about 30 days, entailed gathering facts about the case, and communicating directly with the resident, who moved out as part of the agreement.
Pettitt reminds property management companies that their teams should adequately deal with resident complaints before moving forward. If it has been, and you’re dealing with a vindictive tenant, that’s often sufficient enough to show that they’re in violation of the lease, forcing the pressure on the problem until they move out. Solutions can be negotiated where they’ll either voluntarily take down the review, or the most damaging aspect of it.
He also warns against getting the website involved, as their financial interest in protecting their reputation can cause more problems.
“You suddenly have another well skilled attorney in the mix that’s going to oppose all your efforts,” he says.
To fix the problem after taking any legal routes, and if the website won’t voluntarily remove the posting, you can always encourage your own tenants to leave positive reviews so that you’re essentially burying the offensive posting. That way, the glaring negative review won’t be the first thing to pop up.
Working in tandem with other non-legal solutions should remediate the problem.
“Filing lawsuit is not your first choice,” Pettitt says. “It is valuable and can be effective. But it is critical that you attempt other non-legal solutions first.”