Bogus Defamation Lawsuit With Fake Defendant Results In Negative Reviews Of Dentist Being Taken Down

from the yet-another-abuse-of-the-legal-system dept

Earlier this year, complaint site Pissed Consumer noticed a disturbing new trend in the dark art of reputation management: unnamed rep management firms were using a couple of lawyers to run bogus defamation lawsuits through a local court to obtain court orders demanding the removal of “defamatory” reviews.

What was unusual wasn’t the tactic itself. Plenty of bogus defamation lawsuits have been filed over negative reviews. It’s that these lawsuits were resolved so quickly. Within a few weeks of the initial filing, the lawsuit would be over. Each lawsuit improbably skipped the discovery process necessary to uncover anonymous reviewers and proceeded straight to judgment with a (bogus) confessional statement from each “reviewer” handed in by the “defamed” entity’s lawyer for the judge’s approval. Once these were rubber stamped by inattentive judges, the lawyers served Google with court orders to delist the URLs.

To date, no one has uncovered the reputation management firm behind the bogus lawsuits. In each case, the companies purporting to be represented by these lawyers were shells — some registered as businesses on the same day their lawsuits were filed.

It’s one thing to do this sort of thing from behind the veil of quasi-anonymity afforded by the use of shell companies. It’s quite another to file a bogus lawsuit with an apparently forged signature (of the supposed defamer) under your own name. But that’s exactly what appears to have happened, as detailed in this post by Public Citizen’s Paul Alan Levy.

In addition to posting his reviews of Mitul Patel on Yelp, [Matthew] Chan posted on RateMDs, kudzu.com and Healthgrades.com about his unsatisfactory experiences with Dr. Patel.   Chan’s is but one of a number of negative reviews directed at Patel on these various sites, but Patel apparently took particular umbrage at this one: he filed a pro se libel action claiming, in highly conclusory terms, that the reviews were false and defamatory.

It doesn’t get much more conclusory than this filing [PDF], which runs only three pages — with one page containing nothing more than a date and a signature. The complaint lists the URLs of Chan’s reviews, says they’re defamatory… and that’s basically it. No part of the reviews are quoted as evidence of defamation. The filing simply declares every review defamatory and demands an injunction. But that’s the kind of detail you can omit when you know you’re never going to have to confront the accused in court.

[I]nstead of suing Chan in Georgia, Patel filed in the circuit court for the city of Baltimore, Maryland, a court that would ordinarily have no personal jurisdiction over a Georgia consumer sued for criticizing a Georgia dentist. Patel justified suing there by identifying “Mathew Chan” as the defendant – note that the spelling of the given name is slightly different – and alleging that this Mathew Chan “maintains a primary residence located in Baltimore, Maryland.”

There’s a problem with both the defendant named and the primary address. The name is misspelled, perhaps deliberately so. The address listed in the complaint is completely bogus.

The fact that the both the online docket for the case, and the “consent motion for injunction and final judgment” bearing a signature for “Mathew Chan,” list his address as 400 East Pratt St. in Baltimore implies to me that this is a case of deliberate fraud, because so far as I have been able to determine, 400 East Pratt Street is a downtown building that contains only offices, retail establishments and restaurants, but no residences.   

Despite these deficiencies, the lawsuit made it past a judge because it contained a supposed mea culpa from “Mathew Chan” of “400 East Pratt Street” admitting to the defamatory postings. This motion with the bogus signature and admission was approved by judge Philip S. Jackson, who also instructed “Mathew Chan” to issue notices to search engines to delist the URLs if removing the original reviews proved impossible.

The real Matthew Chan — who posted the reviews — had never heard of the lawsuit until after the injunction had already been approved and served. Yelp notified him of the court order it had received. Chan, who still lives in Georgia as far as he can tell, informed Yelp of the situation and the review site decided to reinstate his review. Other sites, however, took the order at face value and removed the reviews. It appears Yelp was the only site to reach out to Chan when presented with the court order — something that doesn’t exactly bode well for users of other review sites. If sites protected by Section 230 are in this much of a hurry to remove content, they’re really not the best venues for consumers’ complaints.

Somewhat surprisingly, Levy received a response (of sorts) from Mitul Patel’s lawyer. They claim this is the first they’ve heard of the lawsuit filed in Patel’s name targeting negative reviews of Patel’s dentistry. This wasn’t delivered in a comment or statement, but rather in the form of a retraction demand [PDF]. The opening paragraphs are inadvertently hilarious.

This letter is to advise you that I have been retained to represent Mitul Patel, DDS, regarding the contents of your blog, dated Friday, August 19, 2016, entitled “Georgia Dentist Mitul Patel Takes Phony Litigation Scheme to New Extremes Trying to Suppress Criticism”.

Based upon a review of your blog, which has unfortunately gone viral, please be advised that the contents of your blog are grossly inaccurate, factually incorrect, and were obviously written for no other purpose but to gain publicity for your blog, and to willfully damage the name and reputation of Dr. Patel.

First, there’s the pain of being Streisanded, embodied in the phrase “has unfortunately gone viral.” That’s the sort of thing that happens when negative reviews are mysteriously injunctioned into the cornfield. Then there’s the stupid accusation the Streisanded hurl at those who expose questionable — and possibly fraudulent — behavior: that it was motivated by a thirst for internet points. The first statement is merely sad. The second is mostly just tiresome.

The retraction demand goes on to claim that this is the first Mitul Patel has heard of the lawsuit (filed in his name) as well. While this would seem unlikely, Levy points out that a reputation management company could have created plausible deniability by filing a pro se lawsuit under Patel’s name (its own kind of fraud) but without notifiying him that this is how it poorly and illegally handles its reputation-scrubbing duties. Unfortunately for Patel, whoever was hired to do this has done further damage to the dentist’s reputation while presumably charging him for making things better.

Levy, of course, will not be retracting the post. His response to the demand letter points out that it’s rather curious no disavowal was made until after the blog post “unfortunately went viral.”

I was not persuaded, however, by your suggestion that I should “retract” the blog post or apologize for it. After all, you acknowledge that much of what I had to say on the blog was true. But I also have qualms about your assertion that, before my blog post was published, Patel had no knowledge of the lawsuit in Baltimore, for two reasons. First, in the course of investigating before I published my article, I obtained from Yelp copies of emails from Mitul Patel to Yelp, attaching the Baltimore court order and asking that Chan’s Yelp comments be deleted. I attach the copies of these emails. Yelp has told me that Patel used [email address retracted], the same email address that [rest of sentence retracted]. Unless the email addresses were spoofed, those emails suggest that your client knew about the court order and was trying to take advantage of it.

Moreover, before I posted my article on the blog, I placed two telephone calls to Patel’s dental clinic to try to speak with him about the lawsuit; I told his receptionist why I was calling. In addition, on Wednesday, August 17, I sent your client an email message mentioning his lawsuit against Chan and spelling out my concerns. Although he did not call me back and did not reply to the email, I trust he saw the messages before I published my article on Friday.

Levy goes on to point out that it seems strange someone or some company would pay a $165 filing fee to file a bogus defamation lawsuit for Patel without ever informing him it was doing so. The only motivation possible would be a shady reputation management company engaging in shadier tactics because Patel’s paying it more than it’s shelling out in filing fees. Levy has requested Patel provide him the name of anyone he’s hired to do reputation cleanup work or perform SEO optimization on his behalf.

So, it’s not just DMCA notices being abused to “protect” dishonest entities’ reputations. It’s also the legal system, where there’s very little compelling lower level judges to spend a few minutes scrutinizing bare bones complaints (and injunction motions) handed to them by shady plaintiffs.









Filed Under: , , , , , , , ,
Companies: yelp

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Bogus Defamation Lawsuit With Fake Defendant Results In Negative Reviews Of Dentist Being Taken Down”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
39 Comments
Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: No lawyers in the filing

As far as we know, there is no evidence that any lawyer was part of this uncovered action. It is certainly plausible that someone had some access to a lawyer to figure out some of the basic details we seek in the documents. But it is hard to believe a lawyer would risk their license to participate in this.

James says:

Re: Re: No lawyers in the filing

It is a genious method! The lawyers know what they are doing. There is no way they can be found liable of breaking any laws just based on filing some docs and someone agreeing that they were the ones how posted and settled. There needs to be witnesses and since they all work together, there will be none. The attorney can always claim they got hired to do this and had no idea the defender was fake.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Fraud

Hello DB,

I agree that someone has committed a fraud on the Baltimore Circuit Court and Judge Philip Senan. My guess is law enforcement will have to be involved and I have been independently looking into this option.

And yes, I also agree that order must be vacated. We have a little time to get that taken cared of once and for all. I would expect that the order would be easily vacated and it would be uncontested upon filing of said motion to vacate.

More importantly, I hope the judge will learn of the details of this little conspiracy that was perpetrated against him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well, I can’t say it’s impossible that the guy is telling the truth about not filing the lawsuit. If someone was willing to fraudulently claim to be the defendant, it’s not out of the question that they’d also forge the plaintiff’s signature.

But it seems like a few steps could be taken, like finding out whose fingerprints are on the original copy, whether the signature matches known signatures of the plaintiff, and to what address (or email address/IP address) the court orders and filings were sent.

There’s no way that this isn’t a crime. Some resources should be spent figuring out who did it.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Inclined to believe dentist on a couple of items

To be fair, I am now inclined to believe the dentist when his lawyer says he did not actually devise the deceptive scheme and that he didn’t make the filing himself. I am somewhat happier to hear that.

However, what seems plausible to me is that the dentist hired some unethical SEO/reputation management firm to try to wipe off my Yelp review which contained a reference to his 2008 disciplinary consent order by the GA Dentistry Board he did not want other people to see. It was fairly easy to uncover but my guess is that he is a bit sensitive to it.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that even an unethical firm would arbitrarily conduct such fraudulent court actions without compensation from some party related to the dentist.

And yes, I do believe there was some crime(s) committed but it is too early to know who did what at this point. And I do believe resources will be brought to bear to conduct some investigation. Even the dentist’s lawyer has said as much.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Inclined to believe dentist on a couple of items

… Yelp review…

I’ve read through the yelp review by “Matthew C.” “Columbus, GA” dated 12/4/2015. That review states, in part:

Mitul Patel actively advertises through home mailers his introductory “$99 exam, X-Ray, & cleaning” program. His home flyer advertising program is very persistent and ongoing. We have been getting them for what seems like months.

Now, there’s something that puzzles me here. According to directions from Google Maps, it’s over 140 miles from Columbus, Georgia, to Dr Patel’s office in Suwanee Georgia. Somewhat over 2 hours, one way, without traffic.

It appears that Dr Patel’s practice is on the other side of Atlanta from you? Is that right?

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Good question

Good question. Yes, I am primarily based in Columbus, GA but I have a girlfriend who lives within a 5-mile radius of the dentist’s office in Suwanee, GA and I stay with her frequently for days at a time. Even before I met her, for many years, I came into Atlanta for many social events and business functions. As such, I have several personal and business friends & acquaintances throughout the ATL area. I also fly out of Atlanta when I travel.

Spending lots of time in the area is how I came to know about Patel’s promotional program. My girlfriend and gets many dentist promo flyers and gives them to me. And since I only need to see the dentist twice a year for cleanings and I spend quite a bit of time with her, it was easy to find a dentist near her home.

Not that it is relevant to the immediate topic but it is a very competitive dentist market in the North ATL area where my girlfriend resides. It is actually easier for me to find a dentist who wants your business in that particular area than Columbus. The competition between dentists is FIERCE in North Atlanta.

As a whole, I distrust many in the dentistry business. It can be a sleazy industry. I have seen, heard, and been “upsold” a lot over the years which is why I have so much to say on the matter.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

In the ancient world, if you stole they took a hand… we got better at balancing things. One would have to assume that as bars are loathe to actually punish those they allegedly oversee, that the lack of punishment emboldens them to violate the rules.

It seems to be a common thing nowdays.
We see criminals with badges allowed to retire rather than face charges or punishment.
We see lawyers violate the rights of the accused & railroad them to jail and its unheard of for them to be called out.
We see people screwed by the system, getting the final fuck you as they pass laws to offer compensation but capping it so low or make the hurdles so high that it isn’t compensation but more punishment for making the powers that be look bad.

I can seed a crappy movie on bittorrent, record all of the IPs that download it, and extort millions…. and it takes far to long for the courts to notice, and then extend every possible courtesy to me that my victims never got. I can lie to courts repeatedly & even run a new scam because there is no punishment coming.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Slander?

“Why should this not be slander on the part of the dentist who filed this fraud, and then passed on a fraudulent order to the review-sites?”

Slander is spoken, so I’ll assume you meant libel, which is printed.

Two reasons. First, he denies he was the one who filed it. Second, litigation privilege. You can’t sue someone for libel for something they put in a court filing or testified to. They can get in trouble (possibly criminal trouble) for perjury, forgery, contempt of court, or similar things, and maybe even monetary sanctions could be issued by the court, but you can’t sue them for libel for it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Slander?

He can deny it all he wants, but a lawsuit will allow the other side to review his emails and financials to see if he actually paid for it. This would prove not only that he lied about not knowing about it, but that he was the one who arranged it. I am not a lawyer, but I would be willing to bet that the Dentist is going to end up being charged with libel, fraud, identity theft and possibly the CFAA. Whatever lawfirm sent this in on his behalf, needs to find new lawyers.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Review removals were the intent

As far as I am concerned, it was certainly a deliberate act by SOMEONE in their attempt to REMOVE my reviews of the dentist. The “defamation” word was included into the illicitly-obtained consent order to make it easier to persuade the consumer review websites to take down my reviews. But fortunately, Yelp didn’t take it at face value and contacted me, which of course, was a shock to me which led to this story coming out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Philip S. Jackson

This motion with the bogus signature and admission was approved by judge Philip S. Jackson…

Looking quickly, the court and judge appear to be non-fictitious.

maryland.gov:

PHILIP SENAN JACKSON, Associate Judge, Baltimore City Circuit Court, 8th Judicial Circuit, since January 18, 2013.

(Caps, bold, and italics in source.)

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Philip S. Jackson

As far as I can tell, Judge Philip S. Jackson is most certainly the real deal. I really wish I could be a fly on the wall and see how he reacts if and when he finds out about this situation that he was manipulated and tricked into signing the bogus consent order. I imagine he will be very unhappy.

DB (profile) says:

Possible involved company...

The filing listed an address of 400 Pratt Street. That’s a large business building in downtown Baltimore.

It’s possible that it was picked at random, but it’s more likely that it’s an accurate address for someone involved.

Most of the businesses there don’t look especially likely. A few fast food places, parking, accounting, architecture, specialized tech businesses. The only company that stuck out was R2integrated, which does social network marketing.

They fit the profile of sleazy marketing. A search reveals cringe-worthy statements such as “sitting at the cool kids table” and “aligns brand, demand, and technology to deliver on the new promise of integration today”.

And yes, they are in the “reputation management” business.
http://www.r2integrated.com/r2insights/hows-your-online-reputation

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Not really entertainment for me

I can see where you are coming from that this situation might be “entertaining” to see all this unfold. I find it interesting but it is most definitely NOT entertaining from where I sit.

I understand you didn’t mean it in a derogatory or personal way and I don’t take offense. I can tell you since this began, I have had all kinds of feelings and emotions over this. Anger and frustration being the top emotions on my list.

Anonymous Coward says:

Elsewhere around the 'net

As this story makes its way down the sidebar here at Techdirt

⁃ The second of Eugene Volokh’s two posts on this incident, “Georgia dentist claims libel lawsuit was filed without his knowledge (though in his name)” (Aug 24, 2016), is now a few days old and poised to slip off the front page of his Volokh Conspiracy blog.

⁃ Scott Greenfield’s post, “Victim Blaming? So The Dentist Claims” (Aug 24, 2016), looks like it still has a few more days on the front landing at Simple Justice.

⁃ Meanwhile, Paul Alan Levy, last Thursday, Aug 25, 2016, updated the story with his third post, “Kudzu.com has restored review of Mitul Patel””, which has in turn begun it’s long trek down the front page at Public Citizen’s Consumer Law & Policy Blog.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Elsewhere around the 'net

Yes, thank you for sharing these additional articles with people who might want to follow the story that will continue to unfold in the weeks and months to come as discoveries or developments occur. I believe Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen will be at the forefront of any new major announcements. To a lesser degree, I will soon be releasing updates on my blog, Defiantly.net

I am mindful that this story will likely fall of the grid shortly. Due to time constraints, I have restricted my commentary to reader comments within each of the aforementioned articles. As most blog writers know, writing articles can be time-consuming and regards a good deal of effort and mental energy (for me me at least).

However, when I have more time, I will make some blog posts that cover things not in the aforementioned stories. For example, I have a lot more to say about the business and declining ethics of dentistry and some of the ugly practices I have uncovered over the years that many people don’t know.

That is not to say that every dentist is unethical or engages in such practices but I can tell you things have changed for the worse in the 25 years I have been a customer/client of dentistry. I have been forced to change dentist many times over the years for various “unhappy” issues.

That is but one example of many “side stories” that I want to get out as a result of this whole fiasco. Another has to do with my feelings of the practices of SEO/reputation management firms.

Anonymous Coward says:

SEO

Levy has requested Patel provide him the name of anyone he’s hired to do reputation cleanup work or perform SEO optimization on his behalf.

Dr Patel’s website at http://www.myjohnscreekdentist.com currently contains a blurb in the webpage footer (at the very bottom of the page):

Seo & Design Find Local Company

That particular blurb in the footer shows up in the Wayback Machine from Aug 21, 2015. Previously, in the captures from Nov 15, 2013, a somewhat similar blurb (accompanied by a png image logo) mentioned “Find Local Dentists” without crediting them for design and SEO.

Of course, one should be rather hesitant to draw any inferences from this, at least beyond the obvious: Dr Patel has obtained SEO services in connection with his online marketing efforts for his dental practice.

Note that SEO is not necessarily equivalent to online reputation management (ORM).

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: SEO vs. Reputation Management firm

FWIW, I have no reason to believe that Patel’s SEO firm had anything to do with this. That relationship appears to have been in place for years prior to the current incident.

And even if Patel’s SEO firm provides “reputation management” services, it is hard to believe that most firms would ever engage in such tactics. As of right now, I tend to believe Patel went outside his SEO firm to find another firm willing to use criminal and fraudulent court filings to remove legitimate user reviews.

But thank you for providing these nuggets of info, I didn’t notice them before.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: SEO vs. Reputation Management firm

… a blurb in the webpage footer…

… I didn’t notice…

Something that I myself did notice was contained in Mr Levy’s Aug 23 post:

In a subsequent conversation, Patel’s lawyer admitted to me that Patel did hire such a company, but he refused to identify it…

(Mr Levy’s emphasis omitted.)

I find it slightly amusing that Mr Oberman would refuse to even identify a company that happens to be openly declared on Dr Patel’s website.

From p.2 of Mr Levy’s Aug 22 letter:

I’d apreciate your finding out from your client whether he ever retained a reputation-management or search engine optimization company.

(My emphasis.)

Perhaps I’m just easily amused by certain trifles. But we can independently establish whether Dr Patel has ever retained a company for search engine optimization. We can identify one such company.

Matthew Chan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: I understand Mr. Oberman's initial response

You are certainly paying to the details. Thank you so much for scrutinizing this so closely. It is helpful.

Regarding Mr. Oberman, he might be Patel’s GA lawyer but he has not attacked me, nor said anything negative about me. I have not even heard from him. It appears Mr. Oberman was brought into this case very quickly by Patel and Oberman did not have ample time to do more questioning or investigating on behalf of his client’s story.

At this point, I am not overly-critical of Mr. Oberman’s initial response. It appears he is trying to be responsible and cautious in what he says. I think Mr. Oberman is in a tough spot right now representing his client. Maybe I am being too gracious and gullible here regarding Mr. Oberman but he hasn’t done or said anything that I have seen that is inappropriate.

I perfectly understand why Mr. Oberman is withholding the name of the reputation management firm. I think releasing that name would probably also hurt his client also. Having said that, I do think independent investigators by law enforcement needs to get involved to uncover the truth. If Patel didn’t do any of this, then he should welcome the investigation to clear his name.

As I said, I am perfectly fine if it is found Patel is an unintended victim but who else would have a reason and motive to quietly file an illegitimate lawsuit in his name in a Baltimore court to remove consumer reviews I wrote about Patel here in Georgia?

Anonymous Coward says:

OCTOBER UPDATE

About seven weeks after Tim Cushing’s August 24, 2016 article here…

Dozens of suspicious court cases, with missing defendants, aim at getting web pages taken down or deindexed”, by Paul Alan Levy and Eugene Volokh, CL&P Blog, Oct 10, 2016

After Matthew Chan filed a motion to vacate the Maryland state court “consent order,” the ostensible plaintiff (Mitul Patel) filed his own motion to vacate . . .

Patel’s motion states that Patel did not actually file the lawsuit, and it attaches a letter from Patel’s lawyer to Richart Ruddie. The letter alleges that Patel had signed an SEO contract with a Ruddie-led entity called “SEO Profile Defense Network LLC,” and alleges that this entity “apparently forged Dr. Patel’s signature to a Complaint and Consent Motion.” (Patel’s lawyer has steadfastly refused to produce the contract in question.)

Levy and Volokh’s CL&P Blog post today fits the Maryland Patel v Chan case into a larger pattern: “There are about 25 court cases throughout the country that have a suspicious profile.”

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...