If I were a lawyer who had been sanctioned for unethical behavior, I’d probably try to avoid attracting attention to myself. But Florida attorney Joe Davis is taking a different approach, and has formally sued Avvo, the social networking and information website for lawyers and consumers, for revealing that he had been sanctioned for professional misconduct. Needless to say, Avvo is not backing down since increasing transparency in the legal process is exactly what the pioneering website has set out to do.
Three years ago, Davis was sanctioned by the Florida State Bar for failing to pay child support and obstructing the court’s disciplinary process. Avvo’s editorial team reflected these convictions by placing a “3.7 Caution” warning on Davis’ Avvo profile, leading the embattled attorney to seek $15,000 in punitive damages from the company for “publishing false and misleading information regarding attorneys” and damaging Davis’ reputation.
Davis’ complaint appears bogus for a few important reasons. First, he was, in fact, sanctioned by the Florida State Bar, so their assessment was hardly false or misleading. Thus, asking the judge to censor this information would amount to little more than a violation of the company’s free speech protection.
CEO Mark Britton summed up the company’s position in a press release yesterday:
“We will not be bullied into censoring important information. Our mission, since day one, has been to provide more information and better guidance for consumers seeking help with legal matters. We are well known for being the only website to offer both high *and* low editorial ratings in our Avvo Rating for attorneys. The reality is that not every lawyer has a perfect background,” said Mark Britton, Founder and CEO of Avvo. “By publishing sanction information in particular, we are shining a flashlight in some very dark corners of the legal industry, and some are not going to like that. But consumers want this level of transparency and, as already decided in the Federal courts, Avvo and similar rating systems enjoy First Amendment protection in giving consumers what they want and deserve.”
This is far from the first time Avvo has been threatened by a sanctioned lawyer. In fact, only nine days after the site launched in 2007, sanctioned Seattle lawyer John Henry Browne sued on similar grounds. Before long, the case was dismissed by a Seattle district court which upheld Avvo’s right to publish true information about attorneys under freedom of speech.
Here’s to hoping the Florida court does the same, so Avvo can get back to what it does best: innovating the web space for lawyers and legal consumers alike.