A Dallas wedding photographer is feeling vindicated after a jury awarded her $1.08 million in a defamation suit after she says a newly married couple went on a smear campaign to destroy her reputation, all over a $125 fee.
When the verdict came in on July 28 in Dallas County, it marked the end of a years-long battle between wedding photographer Andrea Polito and lifestyle blogger, Neely Moldovan, and her husband, Andrew Moldovan.
“I finally feel some vindication after almost three years of a legal battle brought on by a fabricated news story and a social media attack,” Polito says in a statement to PEOPLE. “I hope my story provides an example for businesses and consumers of how quickly a successful business and reputation can be damaged by false information and social media bullying.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, Neely says the couple believes they were merely defending themselves.
“We are stunned. We did what consumer advocates say to do: When you are wronged, you fight back,” the statement reads. “We were unhappy with a situation, so we complained like anyone would. This court decision tells consumers not to speak up for fear of fat legal bills and painful judgments. If this is the cost of standing up for what’s right, we should have given in to start with. But we hope to prevail in the end. We’d love nothing more than to put this behind us and focus on raising our five-month-old child.”
The Moldovans hired Polito’s company to photograph their wedding and related events in October 2014. The couple began emailing Polito for high-resolution photos just weeks after the wedding, though their contract stated that the couple would receive the photographs when their entire wedding album was complete. At that point, the couple had not yet completed an order form or paid the $125 fee for the photo album’s cover, which Polito gets custom made from Italy.
The Moldovans objected to the fee and according to a court petition, Polito emailed Neely on January 14, 2015 and “requested that Neely select the album cover, with the intention of waiving the cost of the cover.”
The couple went on camera with a local news station in January 2015 to complain that Polito’s company was holding their photographs “hostage.” This ignited a social media campaign and press tour that focused on the Moldovan’s version of the story and eventually led to the demise of Polito’s company, according to the photographer.
The couple managed to rally hundreds of their followers into leaving negative reviews and comments on popular wedding photography websites and Polito’s social pages.
“It instantly burned down the reputation that Andrea built up over 12 years,” Polito’s attorney, Dave Wishnew, tells PEOPLE. “She didn’t book any more weddings after that. It was done. The negative reviews destroyed her reputation, and in a business that is largely word-of-mouth, no one was referring her.”
The attacks left Polito humiliated, and she found herself downplaying her name out of fear people would search her online and see the stories.
“I used to love getting out of bed in the morning, I was excited and I had a purpose, and they took it away,” she says. “For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve felt completely worthless.”
Wishnew argued that the Moldovans’ negative social media posts about Polito’s company were more about promoting themselves than about their photographs. “They admit in their messages and the evidence in court that they wanted it to go viral, and they wanted it to ruin Andrea’s business,” he says. “The more traffic that goes to Neely’s blog, the more they can have sponsored posts, and more sponsored posts means more money.”
The Dallas County jury agreed with Wishnew that the Moldovans’ social media campaign was done out of malice and that Polito had followed the terms of the contract they initially agreed to. Finally, Polito’s name was cleared.
“When the jury came out and said that, it felt like I got ‘me’ back, and that’s all I ever wanted. I just wanted my name back, for me,” she says.
Wishnew adds that he was thrilled when the verdict came in. “Andrea has been through hell and back,” he says. “It was about clearing a good person’s name who was dragged through the mud for a long time. For Andrea, this is the first step to rebuilding a reputation that was torn down.”
Wishnew shared advice to other small business owners if they ever find themselves in a similar situation. “If people put out false and defamatory statements and outright lies about your business, you can stand up for yourself,” he says. “No one is challenging a customer’s right to express an opinion, or their point of view, or challenge their freedom of speech, but with that freedom comes consequences if you lie.”
Today, Polito hopes she can restart her life and get back to the way things were before with her reinvigorated photography business. She admits that it took years for her to build a name in her industry, and it will take time again for her to rebuild it back. But she hopes her story informs business owners about their rights and warns online commenters about the consequences of their actions.
“People will go online, write something, and go about their day,” she says. “They have no clue what happens on the other side of that keyboard. My life fell apart. My business was destroyed. And when my business was destroyed, it felt like part of me was, too.”