Class Action by Lawyers Against Website with Attorney Profiles

By Jennifer E. Rothman
December 4, 2015

A class action has been filed on behalf of California attorneys against the website Avvo, a service that provides attorney profiles sometimes without the attorneys' consent. Avvo collects public information about various attorneys such as name, specialities, years in practice and firm information and provides that information in a searchable database that sometimes also includes a photograph of the attorney. The website allegedly makes money through advertising, sometimes by selling advertising to other attorneys whose information appears on the same page as other attorneys. The complaint alleges that attorneys who do not want competing attorneys to appear on their profile page must pay Avvo for that privilege.  The complaint, filed in the Northern District of California, claims a violation of California Civil Code Section 3344, a common law misappropriation claim, and an unfair competition claim.

The case raises some juicy First Amendment questions. The complaint concedes that the complied information is in the public domain and its use protected by the First Amendment, but contends that because of the sale of advertising and services to competing attorneys the use by Avvo exceeds their First Amendment privilege to use this information. This is definitely a case to watch as it will have implications far beyond the legal community.  If the First Amendment does not protect such services, many other sites may be in jeopardy. For-Profit sites that use public data about individuals (and their likenesses) without permission in the context of selling advertising and sponsored search results, such as Health Grades and other doctor search sites, as well as more mainstream services like Yelp, could be at risk.  

Complaint, Darsky v. Avvo, Inc., (Filed N.D. Cal. Dec. 1, 2015)