Plaintiffs filed a California class action lawsuit in Los Angeles on October 22, 2013 against Yelp. Yelp is a website that provides reviews of different businesses around the world. The plaintiffs are a group of Yelp reviewers, claiming that they are unpaid writers who are vital to the company’s existence. In the complaint, plaintiffs refer to themselves as writers and non-wage paid employees who have earned Yelp considerable sums of money.
The complaint states, “The practice of classifying employees as ‘reviewers’ or ‘Yelpers’ or ‘Elites’ or ‘independent contractors’ or ‘interns’ or ‘volunteers’ or ‘contributors’ to avoid paying wages is prohibited by federal law, which requires employers to pay all workers who provide material benefit to their employer, at least the minimum wage.” The complaint further alleges that Yelp motivates its non-wage-paid writers to increase the volume of their production with incentives in the form of liquor, food, badges, and trinkets.
Lily Jeung, a contributor to Yelp, who was named an “Elite” reviewer, alleges that in order to maintain her status, she was “often directed to write more reviews if in Yelp’s opinion her production seemed to slack off.” Jeung had written about 1,100 reviews when Yelp abruptly closed her account. Yelp sent an email explaining that it had flagged a number of the reviews she wrote in connection with an investigation of businesses that have tried to pay for positive reviews, as a result, her account was closed and the decision was final.
Anyone who reads online reviews knows it is hard to determine whether an online business review is authentic. To combat this problem, Yelp has developed a computer algorithm in a continuous effort to identify and filter out phony reviews. It is this computer algorithm that flagged some of Jeung’s reviews and closed her account. It is Jeung’s stance that she was “fired from her position with no warning, a flimsy explanation, and no opportunity for recourse or appeal rights.”
Yelp has replied to the allegations by telling Fast Company “The argument that voluntarily using a free service equates to an employment relationship is completely without merit, unsupported by law and contradicted by the dozens of websites like Yelp that consumers use to help one another.”
Yelp’s website success does rely on an active base of reviewers, however opponents to the lawsuit have liken it to Facebook users demanding payment for status posts. Nicholas Thompson of the New Yorker told Bloomberg that the “plaintiffs write so many reviews — in some cases more than a thousand each — for the simple reason that Yelp is an online community in which they enjoyed participating, not for the promise of working as a paid writer. ‘They did it for the reasons why we all contribute online. We do it for prestige, we do it to connect with our friends, we do it because we think we’re making the web a better place,’ he said.”
If the plaintiffs are successful in their lawsuit, this would change the landscape of online reviewing.