Law firm said student Lan Cai must cough up $100k for online complaints, judge disagreed. When 20-year-old Lan Cai was in a car crash this summer, it was a bad situation. Driving home at 1:30am from a waitressing shift, Cai was plowed into by a drunk driver and broke two bones in her lower back. Unsure about how to navigate her car insurance and prove damages, she reached out for legal help.
The help she got, Cai said, was less than satisfactory. Lawyers from the Tuan A. Khuu law firm ignored her contacts, and at one point they came into her bedroom while Cai was sleeping in her underwear. “Seriously, it’s super unprofessional!” she wrote on Facebook. (The firm maintains it was invited in by Cai’s mother.) She also took to Yelp to warn others about her bad experience.
The posts led to a threatening e-mail from Tuan Khuu attorney Keith Nguyen. “If you do not remove the post from Facebook and any other social media sites, my office will have no choice but to file suit,” he told her, according to a report in the Houston Press on the saga.
Nguyen and his associates went ahead and filed that lawsuit, demanding the young woman pay up between $100,000 and $200,000—more than 100 times what she had in her bank account.
“I feel like they’re trying to pull every single penny out of me just because I didn’t want to be their client,” Cai told the Houston Press. Cai was working six days a week to pay her way through nursing school at Houston Community College.
Nguyen said he didn’t feel bad at all about suing Cai, adding: “I feel sorry for her, because again, I gave her plenty of opportunities to retract and delete her post and she refused. She was proud: ‘I’ve got it on Facebook. I’ve got it on Yelp,’ with no remorse.”
Cai didn’t remove her review, though. Instead she fought back against the Khuu firm, which had only represented her for a few days. She found a new attorney, Michael Fleming, who took her case pro bono.
Fleming filed a motion arguing that, first and foremost, Cai’s social media complaints were true. Second, she couldn’t do much to damage the reputation of a firm that already had multiple poor reviews. He argued the lawsuit was a clear SLAPP (strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Like many states, Texas has a law allowing for SLAPP suits to be thrown out at early stages of litigation.
Ultimately, the judge agreed with Fleming, ordering [PDF] the Khuu firm to pay $26,831.55 in attorneys’ fees.
“We are very happy with the judge’s correct ruling in this case,” Fleming told Ars via e-mail. “Texas law specifically protects folks who are exercising their free speech rights and the statute was appropriately applied in this situation. People should be free to express their opinions without the threat of a lawsuit.”
The Khuu firm hasn’t commented about the case.
In the end, Cai’s saga will be one more warning sign to anyone seeking to limit US consumers’ right to kvetch, whether online or off.