(WJLA) - For the past 25 years, Joe Hadeed has run the carpet and rug cleaning business started by his father in 1954.
Customer feedback was usually great, he says, but in 2012 a series of negative reviews began appearing on Yelp.com.
"It was hurtful," he says.
Those reviews started dragging his cleaning business through the mud:
"The cost financially is not what is important to me and my family. It's our reputation."
Business dropped 30-percent, leading to dozens of layoffs at the store. According to Hadeed, the negative reviews replaced positive ones only after he decided not to advertise with Yelp anymore. Some of the negative posts were from anonymous sources, leaving Hadeed to wonder where they came from.
"Ex-girlfriends, ex-wife, all kinds of things went through my head," he says.
Hadeed is now suing seven nameless reviewers for defamation, and demanding that Yelp turn over the names in order to determine whether they had actually even hired Hadeed.
"If they're not customers, then it's slander," he says.
Yelp objected, but both the Alexandria Circuit Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals have sided with Hadeed. Now, the site is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
In a statement to ABC 7, Yelp says this: “Some users may wish to remain anonymous for privacy or for fear of retaliation. We think it is important to protect these users, since their opinion can provide valuable information to consumers and the marketplace.”
The review site also adds: “Litigation is a terrible substitute for customer service, and businesses should think twice before they opt to use the courts as a weapon against their customers.”
Michael Kraus is a professor of tort law and product liability at George Mason Law School. When asked about releasing names, he says that judges will eventually have to decide between valid criticism and malicious slander.
"I think the nation is looking at this with great interest...the courts are very clear that anonymous speech is protected, but the courts are just as clear that libel, written defamation is not protected."