A lawyer helping Lan Cai — the 20-year-old waitress sued by a Houston law firm for sharing her bad experience with the firm on Facebook and Yelp — has asked a judge to immediately dismiss the case.
The law firm of Tuan A. Khuu sued Cai, a former client, for between $100,000 and $200,000, arguing that the things she wrote on Facebook, urging no one to ever hire the firm, are defamatory and libelous, meaning the firm believes the statements are false and will seriously damage its reputation.
Houston attorney Michael Fleming, however, thought the case was bogus almost immediately after seeing media reports about it — including ours — and thought it was nothing but a bully's attempt to silence unfavorable criticism on the Internet. Should a Fort Bend County judge agree, Fleming is asking that Tuan A. Khuu pay $50,000 in damages plus attorney's fees, as Fleming is representing Cai pro bono.
“Whenever you see a situation where a lawsuit is being used to coerce somebody into taking an action —like removing an online review — it's a red flag,” Fleming said. “The intention is to have a chilling effect and to stop other people from speaking out.”
As we reported Wednesday, Cai originally hired attorneys from Tuan A. Khuu to represent her after she was hit by a drunk driver, then subsequently hit by an SUV that couldn't swerve out of the way in time. Her first meeting with the attorneys was already off to a bad start: They entered her private bedroom while she was half-asleep under the covers in her underwear (the attorneys maintain Cai's mother told them to go inside). Then, after Cai was enticed by the discount attorneys offered, she hired them — but says they ignored her calls for a few days while she was bombarded with questions from insurance hounds.
It didn't take long for Cai to decide to switch to a new law firm. First she took to Yelp, saying she “wouldn't even give this law firm a star” on a five-star scale. Then, in the Facebook group Vietnamese Americans in Houston, here's what she wrote that the law firm thinks is defamatory (alleged defamatory statements italicized):
“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.”
After seeing the post, Keith Nguyen sent Cai a threatening email, saying that if she didn't delete the post, his firm would have “no choice” but to sue her.
Fleming, who has handled libel and slander cases in the past, says he sees nothing about Cai's statements that makes them defamatory: They are not only true statements (Nguyen says they are "half-truths"), but even if they were false, they're not mean enough to meet the standard required to really wreck someone's reputation, Fleming said.
Plus, Fleming argued in his motion that since Tuan A. Khuu already had so many one-star Yelp reviews at all of its three locations, there was no way to prove that 20-year-old Cai's two cents on the Internet had in fact caused the firm's reputation any real “damage," which is required in defamation suits. (Note: Most of the Yelp reviews now are from Redditors making fun of the firm; see our favorites below.)
Fleming said that Tuan A. Khuu's lawsuit is a “SLAPP” suit — a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” — in which the plaintiff's goal is simply to intimidate someone into not exercising his or her freedom of speech. Luckily, Fleming said, the Texas Legislature passed a new law a couple of sessions ago to protect against these very lawsuits, called the Texas Citizens Participation Act. If it's clear that someone is suing simply to silence criticism and scare others from voicing their opinions — like, say, on Yelp — then a judge can dismiss the suit immediately so a person like Cai, a student, doesn't have to waste money fighting the case in court.
"I hope we can prevail and help this young lady out and get rid of this case, because I don't think she deserves it," Fleming said. "Lawyers suing people who give an opinion about their services on the Internet is something that sets a horrible precedent."
When we interviewed Nguyen on Tuesday, he told us he didn't feel bad at all about suing a broke 20-year-old girl waiting tables six days a week to pay her way through nursing school at Houston Community College. He said he felt sorry for her because she didn't listen to him.
"People need to learn the consequences of their actions," he told us.
It turns out, Nguyen may be learning to take his own advice: Reddit descended on Tuan A. Khuu's Yelp page and filled it with warnings for other users, and fake, really horrible reviews, and taunted the firm to sue them after calling the lawyers mean names.
Below are our favorite fake reviews, which have likely since been deleted by Yelp.
Donald T. from Washington, D.C.: "I know good lawyers, folks. I have the best lawyers. Believe me when I tell you that these guys... they just don't have any idea what they're doing. Low energy. There' coming over here, they're scam artists, they're criminals. They aren't giving us their best.
We need problem solvers. We're going to build a wall. A wall of reviews, folks. It's going to be a great wall, and we're going to keep these people out. Keep them out of our courtrooms. We're going to make free speech safe again, we're going to make free speech strong again, and we're going to make free speech GREAT again!"
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Moiste T. from Toronto Canada: "I decided to use the services of Quiche Nguyen, and had a pleasant meeting with him in his office. However, I watched NBC's "To Catch A Predator" later that evening, and saw Mr Nguyen being apprehended by Chris Hansen!
I believe he is now out on probation, so surely he does not pose a danger to the community, but I chose not to take a risk, and as such have found an alternative lawyer."
Britney K. from Sugar Land: So these guys show up at my house and walked in on me while I was taking a shower. But they're just going to say that they were invited in, so they're definitely not wrong for invading my privacy rather than KNOCK and WAIT for me to answer instead. Right afterwards they claimed they were invited to raid my fridge as well, and cleaned out all of my favorite ice cream sandwiches and green tea flavored haagen daaz. I'VE BEEN SAVING THAT FOR MY K-DRAMAS TONIGHT."
Unfortunately, the best parody review, about how Bob U. decided to give the firm two stars because the firm had stale donuts at the office one day when he was hungry — generous of Bob, after finding out that it was actually a Tuan A. Khuu lawyer who ran Bob over while he was riding his bike — was deleted by Yelp. Sorry, Bob.