By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Tribune News Service
CHICAGO — Consumers who post negative reviews on websites like Yelp have new protections under Illinois law.
A bill signed into law last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner prohibits businesses from including or enforcing non-disparagement clauses in contracts for the sale or lease of consumer goods or services. Such so-called “gag” clauses are meant to dissuade customers from posting critical reviews by threatening them with fees if they do.
It isn’t clear how many businesses insert such clauses into consumer contracts, which are typically found in the “terms and conditions” language consumers often accept without reading. But moving companies, dentists, retailers and hotels are among the businesses that have been reported to have such clauses. Last year, a Dallas-based pet-sitting company sued a couple for $1 million after they posted a one-star review on Yelp; the case was dismissed.
“The rise of Yelp, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms requires this consumer protection,” said state Democratic Sen. Steve Stadelman, who sponsored what has been called the “right to Yelp” legislation. California and Maryland have similar laws, according to his office.
Companies can still sue for defamation if a consumer’s review is untrue.
The Illinois law is similar to the Consumer Review Freedom Act, a federal law that President Barack Obama signed last year. But the federal law is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, so consumers can’t sue a company directly for violating it, according to Vince DiTommaso, an attorney who represents consumers in class-action consumer fraud litigation.
In contrast, the Illinois law, which amends the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, allows consumers to sue companies for damages and attorneys’ fees, DiTommaso said.
“That opens up a whole other area of benefit to consumers,” he said. And, he said, “it creates new litigation for me, which is wonderful.”
The state law doesn’t seem to be ruffling Illinois businesses. Neither the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce nor the Illinois Retail Merchants Association had positions on the bill, which passed unanimously in the House and Senate.
“None of our members objected to it,” said Rob Karr, CEO of the retail merchants group.