Two years after an unsuccessful court battle to discover the identity of a negative reviewer on Avvo, the anonymous client who criticized a Florida divorce attorney has come forward and identified herself.
“Jane Doe” is Holly Dickson of Tampa, Florida, and she is still pursuing her divorce case, now nine years old. Dickson, age 50, has lived in Tampa since 1976 and is a real estate agent. “Everyone at courthouse knows who I am,” she said in an interview.
Dickson posted an anonymous review on Avvo on September 24, 2013, headlined “Things to consider.” She gave Tampa Divorce attorney Deborah Thomson a one-star rating saying, “Her lack of basic business skills and detachment from her fiduciary responsibilities has cost me everything. … My interests were simply not protected in any meaningful way.”
Thomson sent a subpoena to discover Dickson’s identity, but was denied by the Washington State Court of Appeals in July 2015. Thomson also filed a libel-slander lawsuit against “Jane Doe” on May 21, 2014, but it was dismissed for lack of prosecution on Jan. 21, 2016.
Online reviews are a touchy subject for attorneys, who fear negative comments on Yelp, Facebook, Avvo and many other review sites.
To prove her identity, Dickson furnished the June 2, 2008, attorney engagement letter, the Sept. 4, 2008, final judgment of dissolution of marriage, the marital settlement agreement, and a variety of other documents. Her case is Joel B. Felty v. Holly Ann Felty Dickson, Case No. 08-DR-009606, Hillsborough County, Florida, Circuit Court.
“I feel strongly about the need for a consumer to speak the truth about their experience. I have spent a lot of money on attorneys,” Dickson said. “I have lost my retirement, I was insolvent within nine months of my divorce. I agreed to no alimony. I have no guaranteed income. I have no retirement, lost an excellent credit score and will surely be working for the rest of my life.”
Asked if she would change the Avvo review today, Dickson said, “I would be far more severe in my commentary.”
In 2008 Thomson, whose name was Deborah Stewart at the time, was an associate at Catherine W. Real, P.A. in Tampa. The Dickson divorce case was assigned to Thomson.
Thomson, who is now practicing with The Women’s Law Group in Tampa, said in an email, “Ms. Dickson had been a client of a former employer of mine toward the end of my time as an employee at that office. It was some time after the post by Ms. Dickson that I discovered that she authored this “review.”
“I completely stand by my response to her post, as her allegations are simply untrue. I do not condone what she did to me, and although I will not resort to the same tactics concerning her behavior, a simple look at the extensive docket for her post-dissolution case, anonymous reviews of other attorneys that have represented her in the past, as well as other cases in which she is involved, illustrate the real problem.”
Regarding a possible new libel lawsuit, Thomson said, “I have not yet decided at this time whether I plan on continuing to pursue this matter with a civil lawsuit against Ms. Dickson. I am hopeful that my written response to Ms. Dickson’s falsities has provided a potential reader with enough information to understand.
Thomson said she stands by her online response to the negative review. “I would respond just the same, with the exception of clarifying that she retained my employer’s office while I was an employee. As I said, her allegations about me are untrue.
“There are many other professionals that have had to deal anonymous, untrue “reviews” by disgruntled individuals. I am hopeful that one day, Avvo, and other similar websites, will begin to verify online reviews prior to allowing them to be posted in order to protect innocent individuals like myself that fall victim to someone’s anger and unethical behavior.”
Dickson’s divorce case has been long and acrimonious. She and her ex-husband, Joel Felty, were co-owners of a successful business, Creative Modular Buildings in Tampa. In the marital settlement agreement she gave up her share in the business in exchange for the marital home in Tampa. She also received $217,000 in various accounts, although she now says she was entitled to $600,000.
“The settlement agreement was a poor contract from the get-go. I was so upset with the lack of depth of knowledge of my attorneys,” Dickson says. “This has been the worst thing in my life. I lost my credit, my finances, I’m here in terrible shape and still need to take ex back to court,” she says.
Two years ago Avvo refused to identify Dickson as the online reviewer, and Avvo told Thomson he believed the reviewer was a client.
Thomson subpoenaed Avvo seeking the identity of the anonymous detractor. The trial court denied her and the appellate court affirmed. Thomson v. Jane Doe, No. 72321-9-I, filed July 6, 2015.
“The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously,” the court said, saying Doe's speech is entitled to an intermediate level of protection.