Business Monday: Aspen pet store seeks settlement with online troll | AspenTimes.com

Business Monday: Aspen pet store seeks settlement with online troll

Attorneys say they want to have settlement discussions with an online troll whose remarks damaged an Aspen pet store's business and reputation.

Aspen law firm Garfield & Hecht filed a motion Tuesday seeking a Pitkin County District judge's permission for more time to amend its complaint and serve it on the person who allegedly made false and disparaging remarks online, using multiple anonymous identities, about CB Paws.

The lawsuit was originally filed March 5, only naming "John Doe" as the defendant.

"Now that plaintiff knows John Doe's identity," the firm wrote in last week's motion, "plaintiff would like an opportunity to enter into settlement discussions with the individual" before suing him.

On Thursday, Judge Chris Seldin approved the motion for the time extension, which also said "settlement discussions could help the parties avoid protracted litigation."

Garfield & Hecht unearthed the poster's identity by subpoenaing Google and Yelp for "the limited purpose of ascertaining defendant's identity, contact information and internet protocol address," according to a March 22 motion.

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The data received from Google and Yelp were entered as exhibits to the lawsuit in July. Those exhibits had been kept under seal until Friday, when the court opened them in response to an Aspen Times request.

Using those documents, the Times also was able to identify the alleged poster, who used such names as Steve Gaf, Sandra Kole, Haddon Hall, Lizzie Gitsul and alfred comesaround.

On Friday the Times contacted the individual, an Aspen man, who denied any involvement or knowledge about the matter.

CB Paws owner Steve Fante declined comment Friday. For the time being, the Times is not printing the alleged poster's name because the lawsuit has not named him as a defendant.

Court filings by Garfield & Hecht also say the person used computers at the Pitkin County Library to fire off his remarks starting in November 2017.

"They all came from a single location, that is, the Pitkin County Library," plaintiff's attorney David Lenyo told Seldin during an Oct. 10 status conference.

The comments in question have ceased since the suit was filed.

The lawsuit alleges the complaints — made on Google, Yelp and other platforms for online reviews — concerned the pet store's return policy and prices, and included false statements about the shop's "smells of dog urine, feces and drool."

While the law firm might know the poster's identity, that doesn't mean it is a slam-dunk case.

Free speech protects anonymous speech, Seldin noted in an April order allowing Garfield & Hecht to subpoena Google and Yelp.

"It is now well-settled that this right to speak anonymously applies to speech on the internet," Seldin's order said. "That right, however, is not unlimited."

Seldin's order referred to a New Jersey case involving computer software company Dendrite International Inc., which sued the anonymous posters of critical comments on a Yahoo message board.

That case resulted in requiring the plaintiff to both notify the anonymous posters they would be subpoenaed for their identity and specify the online statements that are actionable speech.

It also included the court determining whether the plaintiffs had a viable claim against the anonymous defendants and that "the court then balance the First Amendment right of anonymous speech against the strength of the prima facie claim (a claim accepted at face value) and the need for disclosure of the anonymous defendant's identity," Seldin wrote.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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