Four individuals who have frequently posted reviews on Yelp announced this week that they are bringing a lawsuit against the review site for breach of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The group, which has three members that held Elite status on the site, argues that its members have been unjustly exploited and should have received at least minimum wage in exchange for their contributions to the site.
“We are confident the US District Court of California will also permit these hereto now unpaid workers to obtain their wages under federal law,” says the group on its website, accusing Yelp of being a “cult-like exploiter of labor in violation of federal law.” Yelp, meanwhile, has described the suit as “frivolous” and said that it will aim to have it dismissed.
Perhaps the closest past case to this one is the lawsuit that was brought against the Huffington Post last year. In that case, the court concluded that the plaintiffs could not demand to be paid for their work when they had willingly consented to provide it without any expectation of compensation. If anything, the Yelp case is less substantial because the Huffington Post case involved its purchase by AOL, with contributors arguing that they had been happy to provide their work to the one company but not to the other. In the Yelp case, no corresponding argument can be made. In between, however, other cases relating to unpaid work and internship have produced different results, and it is on this that the unhappy former Yelpers are pinning their hopes. In the Glatt vs Fox Searchlight case in June, which was also brought under California law, the court ruled that the multinational owed wages to interns because it had failed to provide them with any meaningful training in exchange for their labor.
In addition to arguing that the plaintiffs are intelligent adults who chose of their own free will to review for free, Yelp is expected to argue that it does provide some recompense to its reviewers in the form of social opportunities and status labels. Its relationship with its Elite reviewers, however, may lead to further complications following accusations that they were pressured to produce positive reviews for particular clients. Damage to Yelp’s reputation could hit it hard, even if it avoids having to make a payout.