An Illinois federal judge dismissed a proposed class action of lawyers whose business information was published by the online attorney database Avvo without their permission. The lead plaintiff, a Chicago-based personal injury lawyer, claimed that Avvo’s service violates the Illinois Right of Publicity Act.
Avvo is designated to permit users to search for attorneys by location, practice area and other criteria. The company generates revenues by offering attorneys the opportunity to purchase advertising space on competitors’ profiles or to ensure that others lawyers cannot promote on their profile.
In granting Avvo’s motion to dismiss, the Court relied on the First Amendment protection of publishing truthful newsworthy information. The decision compared Avvo’s business model to traditional newspapers that advertise space or a yellow pages directory where businesses can pay for a more prominent listing.
The lead plaintiff argued that Avvo, by selling advertising space through “sponsored” links, was participating in commercial speech. In support of this argument, counsel relied on a recent Seventh Circuit decision in a dispute between basketball icon Michael Jordan and Jewel Food Stores. In that case, Jordan sued Jewel when the grocery chain, without his permission, published an advertisement in a Sports Illustrated commemorative issue regarding Jordan’s induction into the Hall of Fame that featured Jordan’s basketball sneakers. The Seventh Circuit held that Jewel was not entitled to First Amendment protection since it was promoting its own brand.
The lead plaintiff argued Avvo was similar to Jewel. The Court disagreed noting that Avvo was more akin to Sports Illustrated, who merely published the advertisement.
Last month, Avvo avoided a similar suit in California after the lead plaintiff agreed to withdraw the case and pay Avvo’s attorneys fees after the company claimed the litigation violated California’s anti-censorship statute.