When an attorney from the Tuan A. Khuu law firm threatened to sue her for writing negative comments about the firm on Facebook and Yelp, 20-year-old Lan Cai was barely deterred.
Lawyers at the law firm, Cai wrote on Facebook, had first gone into her bedroom while she was half-asleep under the covers in her underwear, ignored her phone calls after she signed a contract, and left her hanging when she arrived at the office to demand an explanation for their behavior. When attorney Keith Nguyen asked her to delete the comments or face a lawsuit, she simply wrote an even more negative Yelp review, warning people to watch out because the firm will sue for bad reviews. Soon after, the firm sued her for libel, alleging the statements she made were false and would severely damage its reputation.
Looks like coming down hard on a 20-year-old nursing student who waits tables six days a week — and asking for between $100,000 and $200,000 in damages — has backfired on the law firm. Because last week, Tuan A. Khuu lost in court and was ordered instead to pay $27,000 in attorneys' fees.
“I'm just proud of this young lady for standing up to these people,” said Cai's attorney, Michael Fleming. “A lot of other people would have folded and said it's not worth it fighting this law firm — I'll just change the review. But she stood up to them, she did the right thing and she was successful.”
Fleming immediately recognized the lawsuit against Cai as a SLAPP suit — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Anti-SLAPP laws were passed in Texas several years ago to protect people against bullies who want to silence people's opinions on the Internet in order to hide criticism of their companies or services — to protect people like Cai, or frequent Yelp reviewers.
In this case, Cai was criticizing the Tuan A. Khuu attorneys' lack of professionalism that she said led her to drop them. She said she had been hit by a drunk driver and needed help navigating insurance and her entitlement to damages. But after a bad experience, here's what she wrote in a Facebook group called Vietnamese Americans in Houston to make sure no one made the same mistake. In italics is what Tuan A. Khuu Law Firm considered — wrongly, a judge ruled — to be libelous:
“After 3 days, they didn't tell me anything about the doctor I needed to go to. I was in a lot of pain. Not only that, they didn't know where the hell my car was! And they came to my house and into my room to talk to me when I was sleeping in my underwear. Seriously, it's super unprofessional! ...I came in to the office to meet with my previous attorney, but he literally ran off.”
A few days later, Nguyen sent Cai this scary-sounding email: “It has come to my attention that you have posted some dispariging [sic] words on your Facebook account. ...If you do not remove the post from Facebook and any other social media sites, my office will have no choice but to file suit.”
Fleming said the threat was a surefire sign that this was a SLAPP case — but even without it, Fleming says he believes Cai still would have won the case, since the firm would not have met the burden for a libel lawsuit, which requires plaintiffs to prove the statements are false and would seriously defame them.
Problem No. 1: Even Nguyen admitted to the Houston Press in an earlier interview that the statements were “half-truths.” One example he gave was that the attorneys did walk in on Cai while she was sleeping in her underwear — but maintained her mother invited them in and they didn't know she was in her underwear. Another: Nguyen was in fact on his way out the door when Cai came to the firm asking for an explanation, but took a little time to explain to her why there were liens on her insurance before leaving her.
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Problem No. 2: Plenty of other people had written much meaner reviews of Tuan A. Khuu on the Internet, and so it would be unlikely that one more from Cai would have seriously hurt the firm, Fleming said.
“Somebody may not like statements made about them — but they don't get to the level of defamation unless they could seriously damage their reputation,” Fleming said. “This woman believed she was providing a truthful review of her experiences with this law firm. And to her credit, she was threatened with the lawsuit and did not back down.”
Tuan A. Khuu attorneys did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Asked last time whether he felt at all bad about suing a college student for more than 100 times what she has in her bank account —and possibly hurting her chances at getting a degree and a job — Nguyen had said no.
“It's not ruining someone's career chances. They need to think before they post,” Nguyen said. “She needs to learn — people need to learn that there are consequences for their actions.”