Former Tenant's Critical Yelp Review Might Be Libelous, Court Rules

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Christopher and Amber Marie BentlyThere are better ways to express your frustration with your landlord -- or even a former landlord -- than to post anonymous comments online. One California man who announced his displeasure for his former landlords in a Yelp review learned that the hard way when it was ruled that his statements were potentially libelous and not mere opinion, Courthouse News reports.

Andreas Papaliolios, who once lived in the upscale Bently Nob Hill apartments with "jaw dropping 360 views of all of San Francisco," used a pseudonym to write a not-so-flattering Yelp "review" of the building's owners -- well-known socialites Christopher Bently and his late wife Amber Marie Bently (pictured above). Years after he moved out, Papaliolios wrote that the building was owned by a "sociopathic narcissist -- who celebrates making the lives of tenants hell."

He didn't stop there, saying: "Of the 16 mostly-long-term tenants who lived in the building when the new owners moved in, the new owners' noise, intrusions and other abhorrent behaviors likely contributed to the death of three tenants (Pat, Mary & John) and the departure of eight more (units 1001, 902, 802, 801, 702, 701, 602, 502) in very short order."

The Bentlys countered with proof that "Mary & John" are still alive, that Pat died of cancer, and that neither Christopher Bently nor his wife were diagnosed with a sociopathic narcissist disorder. (However, in news accounts of Amber Marie Bently's recent death, Christopher Bently was quoted as saying that the 34-year-old businesswoman confronted mental health issues.)

Not long after the Bentlys' 2005 purchase of the building, where Papliolios already resided, they moved into the penthouse. The relationship between the two households soon proved "contentious and litigious," according to the court documents. At one point the owners attempted to evict Papaliolios from the approximately 1,000-square-foot unit 701 but were unsuccessful. Papaliolios eventually moved out on his own accord in 2008, stating in his review that "there is NO RENT that is low enough to make residency here worthwhile." The current rent on that newly remodeled one-bedroom unit is $4,250, according to the building's website.

Papaliolios argued that he had a right of free speech, that his comments were "substantially true" and that an Internet forum is expected to be a place for "strongly worded opinions rather than objective facts." However, justices for the California Court of Appeal's First Appellate District, did not agree, saying that Papaliolios showed signs of malice.

"Given these triable issues in connection with the merits of plaintiffs' libel claim, and the material nature of Papaliolios' statements to a prospective tenant, a trier of fact might conclude that his review was not substantially true and was defamatory," Justice Kathleen Banke wrote for the three-member panel deciding the case.

The Yelp page for Bently Nob Hill Apartments currently shows that three reviews have been removed for violating content guidelines or terms of service. One remaining review from "Jen H," a past tenant of Unit 102, states, in part, "The resident manager and the security staff are top notch -- you couldn't want for a thing. The new owners have lovingly restored the building back to the original splendor. It is the jewel of Nob Hill. I love this building, the location and would love to be a tenant once again."

For tenants who have legitimate gripes with their landlords, experts say there are much better ways of handling them than risking a libel suit:

Try to keep it amicable: If your efforts to solve the problem with your landlord on your own haven't worked, many cities offer landlord and tenant dispute services in order to prevent a situation from going to court (as AOL Real Estate reported in "Defuse the Situation Before Landlord-Tenant Disputes Get Ugly). You can seek mediation help from your local tenant's union, and also can file a grievance with them, or make a report to the Better Business Bureau.

Know your rights: Before any tenant's union or mediator will call your landlord, they will want to see your lease agreement. So have it handy and know what's in it. Tenants should know the difference between a law, a provision of a lease, and a nuisance before taking action, real estate attorney Dean M. Roberts of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. told AOL Real Estate in "When You Can Force Your Landlord To Listen To You." Not all issues are enforceable. People often lose out when the law doesn't keep up with social norms, Roberts warned.

If you must sue: Try to use small-claims court if your case involves a monetary dispute of less than $5,000. (Every state sets a maximum dollar amount allowed on small claims, so consult your local authorities.) Lawyers are not allowed in small-claims court, which can be a good thing, as we reported in "Suing a Landlord in 7 Steps." You wouldn't want to spend a bunch of money on lawyers just to get back a security deposit.

More on landlord-tenant disputes:
When a Landlord Can Put Your Life in Danger
Man Claims Religious Display Got Him Evicted
Tenants: Stench of Death Makes St. Louis Complex 'Unlivable'

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