With Interest In Profile Defenders' Questionable Lawsuits Rising, The Lawsuits Start Falling
from the reputation-management dept
Earlier this year, we were among the first to write about the highly questionable practice of “reputation management” companies filing clearly bogus lawsuits against unknown defendants, only to magically have those “defendants” show up a day or two later with an agreement that they had posted defamatory content. The goal of these lawsuits was obvious: get a court order. That’s because many platform websites, including Google, won’t take down or delink content based on a claim of defamation, but will do so if there’s a court order. Of course, filing a real lawsuit has all sorts of problems, including money and actually needing to have a real case. These reputation management lawsuits got around all of that by basically faking defendants, having them “agree” to a settlement admitting to defamation, and getting a court order saying that the content is defamatory. Neat and clean. And total abuse of legal process.
Last month, Public Citizen’s Paul Levy (who has helped defend Techdirt against some legal bullies) picked up on this thread and found evidence of more bogus lawsuits. A few weeks ago, he and famed law professor Eugene Volokh teamed up to reveal more details on a series of such lawsuits, which all seemed to be connected back to a guy named Richart Ruddie and an operation that goes by a bunch of names, but mainly Profile Defenders. It appears that Ruddie/Profile Defenders is not the only one filing these kinds of lawsuits, but he’s been prolific. So far, Ruddie’s only response is a bizarre press release touting his “anti-cyberbullying skills.”
He may want to find a real lawyer though.
Volokh reports that one of the courts that had granted one of Profile Defenders’ orders has now vacated that order. Of course, that might not matter since Ruddie has likely already used it to have content taken down. But, more importantly, the judge in that case is considering another case that looks like it’s another Profile Defenders case. And suddenly, the judge seems a lot more interested in the details.
I?m delighted to report that late last week, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas vacated the order in one of these cases, Callagy v. Roffman (No. 160603108). The plaintiff?s lawyer told us that the company they used for that case was Profile Defenders, but they had no idea that the defendant in that case was apparently nonexistent (and it?s certainly possible that they indeed had no idea of this).
Also late last week, the same judge scheduled a hearing in Murtagh v. Reynolds (No. 160901262), in which no order had yet been issued; the order scheduling the hearing notes that the plaintiff must present ?strict proof of service? for the case to go forward. I haven?t been able to reach the plaintiff in that case ? or the ostensible plaintiff, as in some cases the plaintiffs have said that they hadn?t authorized a lawsuit, and in some cases the plaintiffs may have been as fake as the defendants, since the only important thing to the filers was to block access to particular websites mentioned in the order, regardless of who the named plaintiffs or defendants had been. I therefore can?t speak with confidence about whether Murtagh was a Profile Defenders case; but the procedural structure of the case is similar to the others I?ve seen, as is some of the legal boilerplate.
That’s not all. A day later, Volokh wrote about another such case that was voluntarily dismissed. In this case, Volokh notes that the reputation management scheme may have been even more nefarious than previously thought. Most of the examples we’ve seen involve trying to remove articles or reviews by claiming those articles are defamatory and then “faking” a “defendant” willing to “settle” and admit guilt in order to get a court order. But in this latest case (and in another one Volokh has seen) it appears that the reputation management operation would try to get a news article to disappear from Google by first submitting a defamatory comment by themselves, and then suing for “defamation” based on that comment (and, then, of course, producing a “defendant” who settles). End result: Google is told to delist an entire article because of a defamatory comment… put there by the “reputation management” firm in the first place:
The article went up in January 2014, but then in July 2016 a comment was posted to the article. (The comment has been deleted in the past few weeks, but the people at the Post & Courier assure me that it wasn?t deleted by them.) And then just a few weeks later, the lawsuit was filed, claiming that the comment was defamatory and that the comment?s author agreed to an injunction ordering the removal of the comment. The plan, I suspect, was to take any such injunction and submit it to Google as a basis for deindexing the whole article (because Google can?t separately deindex the comment). Sometimes this sort of plan has worked.
The comment plays a peculiar role in such cases, I think. In one similarly structured case, for which I have been told what day the contract with the reputation management company (there, Profile Defenders) was signed, the comment was posted immediately after that signing, so I assume that comment was ginned up for the purposes of that lawsuit.
Hopefully, as more judges learn about this scam, it won’t be so easy to pull off.