What happens when a small business and a customer have a dispute? These days it is increasingly common for customers to publicly, and sometimes unlawfully, address their grievances on the Internet. And this is exactly what Dallas newlyweds Neely and Andrew Moldovan did to their wedding photographer.
The Backstory of the Polito v. Moldovan Case
In October 2014, Neely and Andrew Moldovan hired Andrea Polito, a well-known Dallas wedding photographer, to capture the entirety of their nuptials from the preparation to the exchange of vows to the reception.
While, the event photography seemingly went well, a few weeks after the ceremony, Neely Moldovan requested copies of the high-resolution photos. In accordance with the contract signed by the newlyweds, Andrea Polito would release the photos upon completion of the album. The release was dependent on the Moldovan’s choosing a cover photo, which they had not done.
The couple went back and forth with Polito’s company several times before Polito ultimately offered to absorb the standard $125 fee for the cover to satisfy the couple.
Shortly thereafter, Polito discovered that the couple had taken matters into their own hands by contacting several media outlets about the dispute, including several local television stations. As quoted by KXAS-TV(NBCS), the Moldovan’s claimed that Polito was,“holding their photos hostage.”
Defamatory Acts by the Moldovans
Polito noticed an almost immediate impact on her 13-year old business as a direct result of the Moldovan’s public complaints.
The Moldovans shared defamatory statements on social media and blogs, including the popular wedding website, Wedding Wire. The Moldovans claimed Polito “cheated” and “scammed” her customers. In one statement on Facebook, Neely Moldovan claimed she was, “pretty sure [Polito’s] business is done.”
The couple also played a role in the publication of other defamatory statements by other people. Several one-star reviews popped up within only a few days after the Moldovan’s story was publicized. One reviewer claimed Polito gave them AIDS,the Moldovans “liked” this review as well as the other defamatory statements.
Initially, the Moldovans said others had posted fake profiles claiming to be them, but with a little bit of investigating, Polito proved that claim to be false.
Although many of the one-star reviews have since been removed from Yelp for violating Yelp’s terms of service, the damage was already done.
The Repercussions of the Defamation
The news story aired in January 2015, which, unfortunately for Polito, was her prime time to book new clients for the year. Polito typically averaged 75 to 100 weddings every year. In stark contrast, in 2015, she only booked 2.
With the steep decrease in revenue, Polito was forced to move out of her studio of 10 years. After photographing dozens of Dallas elite weddings, her reputation had been destroyed by the disparaging comments posted by the Moldovans online and in the press. Her career was ruined.
On July 28, 2017, the Moldovans learned that they were liable for $1.08 million in damages for the defamatory, disparaging, and malicious statements they made about Polito and her business.
The Moldovans have the opportunity to appeal this ruling. In the meantime, they released the following statement:
“We were unhappy with a situation, so we complained like anyone would. This court decision tells consumers not to speak up for fear of fat legal bills and painful judgments. If this is the cost of standing up for what’s right, we should have given in to start with. But we hope to prevail in the end.”
Defamation Has Serious Consequences
While the Moldovans have the right to free speech to complain about something that made them unhappy, the moment they included false assertions of fact in their complaints, they ventured outside the First Amendment protections. Defamation is not protected as free speech and it is unlawful.
After several years of battling this case, Polito says she is emotionally exhausted. She hopes that if this ever happens to another business owner, that person fights “for what’s right and fight(s) for (their) passion.”
“No one is safe from this,” Polito told Dallas News. “I wasn’t a new business, I was an established business with a reputation that was well-respected in the Dallas community.”
At Hutcherson Law, we help small business owners protect their reputation and business. If your business has suffered from Internet defamation, contact us now to see how we can help.