By Attorney Bailey Weiland
When dealing with a difficult or unreasonable landlord, it can be tempting for tenants to take to various online forums to express their frustrations. Unfortunately, doing so may cause more harm than good. Posting a negative review or sharing a bad experience can open the door for a defamation lawsuit . . . even when the statements made are true.
In order to make a case for defamation, a plaintiff must prove: (a) there was a false statement, (b) unprivileged publication to a third-party, and (c) the statement caused damages. Under Illinois law, the statement must be both factual and false; therefore, truth is an absolute defense to defamation claims. Additionally, statements of opinion are not actionable in a claim for defamation as they are protected by the First Amendment. In order to be considered an “opinion,” the statement cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts. Defending a claim of defamation for internet reviews often hinges on this distinction.
Due to the costly and lengthy nature of litigation, most landlords are not quick to resort to bringing a defamation claim. However, some organizations take a “sue first, ask questions later” approach. This was the case for Horizon Realty Group, who sued their tenant for a tweet. The post, reaching the tenant's 20 followers, complained of a mold problem in the tenant's unit. The tweet at issue stated, “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's ok.” The Court's decision relied on distinguishing between what is fact and what is opinion. The Court ultimately determined that the statement was an opinion, and the case was dismissed. Horizon Group v. Bonnen.
Even though the tenant won the lawsuit, she still faced the cost of litigation in the form of court costs and attorney's fees. Defending a defamation claim is an expensive process, imposing a greater financial burden for the individual than for larger organizations. Before taking to the internet to express your frustrations, it is important to take into consideration all of the consequences in doing so. If you feel your rights have been violated as a tenant, the attorneys at CTM Legal Group can assist you in protecting you and your rights.