Property Management Company Files $1 Million Defamation Lawsuit Against Critic And Former Tenant

from the sure,-venturing...-but-gaining-what? dept

Companies suing critics is nothing new, even if it's generally a bad idea. Even if completely justified (which it rarely is), the move does little to improve the company's reputation, especially if there's any amount of media coverage. The attempt to silence the criticism usually only solidifies the aggrieved company's link with negative phrases both in the minds of the public and search engine algorithms.

Techdirt reader ABJ sends in another story of a defamation lawsuit aimed at an online critic.

A Columbus man faces a lawsuit with potential damages of more than $1 million because of comments he made online about his experience renting at a Northwest Side apartment complex.

James Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, commented on several forums about his time at the Meridian off W. 5th Avenue. He used a comic tone to contrast the complex’s purported “luxury apartments” and his view of their reality.
At least this time, the suing company has specified exactly which of Raney's statements it has found actionable. Its filing lists several statements made by the blogger/former tenant, including these.
• Connor is “gaming the system” by paying people to write positive reviews on apartment ratings websites.

• The company does not spend enough money for needed repairs at its properties.

• Connor “financially raped” residents with high fees.
With the truth being the most absolute defense against defamation allegations, the company will have to provide some information which refutes Raney's claims. The company claims it isn't trying to shut up critics, but rather attempting to address comments it feels are "untrue, malicious and defamatory." The company is asking for "more than $25,000" per allegedly defamatory statement, of which it has named 30. According to Raney, the grand total asked for exceeds $1.5 million.

Raney's blog details several complaints by other tenants of Connor properties, many of which allege negligent behavior by the company in response to maintenance concerns. Tenants have complained of flooding that has gone unaddressed for days on end, or hastily patched with paint or cardboard.

One former tenant has filed a personal injury lawsuit against the company after a waterlogged ceiling collapsed onto him in his bedroom. One complaint details an electrical outage in her apartment, which the maintenance crew apparently addressed by flipping the circuit breaker switch a few times and handing her a space heater to keep her powerless apartment warm (which did nothing for the food in her fridge that rotted while the maintenance crew periodically flipped switches).

The company currently holds an "A" rating at the Better Business Bureau but it's a highly suspect "A." (And, it must be noted, most BBB ratings can be considered suspect...) The company has fielded 312 complaints in the last 3 years, 216 of them listed as "problems with product/service."

A class action lawsuit alleging the company's failure to maintain a livable property at one apartment complex in Georgia alleges that Connor's business strategy (according to its own documents) is to "flip" underperforming properties -- buying and selling them within a couple of years -- which gives it no incentive to maintain the property once it reaches its desired occupancy level. This lawsuit is still ongoing, 19 months and 120 docket entries down the road.

All of this does not necessarily add up to a clear picture of malfeasance on The Connor Group's part, but filing a million-dollar lawsuit against one blogger doesn't necessarily make it look blameless, either. It has been racking up about one complaint every three days for the last three years, but that's mitigated by the fact that it's spread across the 15,000 units it manages.

The question remains as to why a company would further risk its reputation by expanding a blogger's limited scope and reach by making his claims public by filing a lawsuit. Paul Levy of Public Citizen offers this theory.
The personal nature of the criticism probably contributed to the lawsuit, said Paul Levy, an attorney at Public Citizen…

“It tends to be small to midsize companies” that sue for defamation, he said. “It tends not to be the General Motors of the world. It tends to be a company where there is an individual who built the company, and he doesn’t like it when the online world criticizes it.”
This seems to be true in a majority of company vs. critic lawsuits. The plaintiff is usually someone big enough to draw dedicated detractors but not confident enough to shrug off the attacks. This doesn't mean entities should just ignore vocal critics, but they should take into consideration that addressing the critic (rather than the criticisms) tends to play out very badly in the court of public opinion. Even if the legal system agrees with its claims, that will ultimately have little effect on the group that really matters -- potential customers.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Mar 25th, 2014 @ 4:31pm

    Annnnd add another company to the list of Streisand School of Public Relations graduates.


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    Zos (profile), Mar 25th, 2014 @ 5:22pm

    aww, i sent this one in a week ago. thought i had a scoop for once.


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    Kronomex, Mar 25th, 2014 @ 11:14pm

    Companies like this are pathetic. Rather than address any issues that might actually resolve problems they rush out to sue anyone who dares to question and comment on their business practices...oh wait...that means they would have spend money. Gasp! Shock! Horror! What a bunch scumbags!


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    Laura Quilter (profile), Mar 26th, 2014 @ 5:17am

    Public figure analysis, baby. By being significant business-people in the community, and injecting themselves into the debate ....


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    Old jarhead, Mar 26th, 2014 @ 5:39am


    Lived in a community purchased by Connor. Rent was jacked up out of sight. Fees were added, and added and added for services that had been part of the rent for 10 plus years. No meters for water usage--the bill for a 12 apartment building was "equally" divided based on the size of the apartment regardless of how many occupants lived in the unit. Guess who owned the company collecting that money--Connor. Conner did me a big favor however, provided the incentive to buy a home and get out of their clutches. The community was sold after only a couple of years.


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    Roman, Mar 26th, 2014 @ 8:51am


    In the context of defending yourself against someone saying you charge high fees, demanding a million dollars is not a great idea.


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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 26th, 2014 @ 10:26am

    De facto admission of guilt

    When I see a company file a lawsuit for amounts of money that are so high as to be properly called "silly", I take that as a de facto admission of guilt by the company. Innocent companies don't go so laughably ballistic.


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    btrussell (profile), Mar 26th, 2014 @ 7:11pm

    3 years, 15 000 units, 216 "problems"

    What does that work out to? About one complaint per 75 000 possibles(every unit every day)? Fucking slum-lords.

    6 complaints per month out of 15 000 units

    1 complaint per month per 2 500 units. Bastards I tell you!

    That would have been my response as opposed to the lawsuit.


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    Frank, Mar 27th, 2014 @ 1:56pm

    Bad Place to Live

    The apartments at The Merridian are well built. The location is great. But the management of this property are by far the most rude, ignorant and belittling people I've ever met. Minus Katie, she was great. The other individuals in the office were down right above me, and we're telling me things about myself I didn't even know. I applied to live there, they only take your prepared 1040, anyone who knows anything knows that you want to make the end amount on your 1040 as little as possible. As a recent combat veteran I had a very low number on mine and they stated I needed a co-signer. I do not need a co-signer. I offered my W-2 and they "weren't legally allowed to accept that." I asked for a refund of my deposit and they told me they couldn't do that either as my file hadn't yet been denied, yet I needed a co-signer, which is legally a denial. I had to hire a lawyer to get my deposit back. After they were contacted by my lawyer they contacted my apartment complex for my rental history, a month and a half AFTER I applied to live there. Two weeks after my lawyer sent them a letter they refunded my original deposit along with my $100 application fee which they claimed was non-refundable. However it should have never taken that kind of action. I wouldn't advise anyone to apply here let alone live here.


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    RENTNdotORG, Mar 28th, 2014 @ 8:42pm


    Hi. Defendant here. Your use of numbers does indeed provide a plausible response and is in fact how the company responds. It even goes you one better. They pay select residents to write reviews in order to dilute the residents who are having problems. Of course, I take issue with The Connor Group's and your approach. Amazon screws up your contract and you get your Kindle a few days late. The Connor Group screws up your contract and you (and possible family) are without shelter. Shelter is one of things you generally end up needing about 100% of the days out of the year.


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    btrussell (profile), Mar 29th, 2014 @ 2:51am

    Re: Re:

    "That would have been my response as opposed to the lawsuit."

    I am not defending them. Just pointing out how easy they could have done something other than a lawsuit.

    I am a renter as well. My heart pumps piss for them if they are collecting so much money every month that they can only afford people to count it for them as opposed to hiring more maintenance staff and/or subbing it out.

    I could tell you a story about the situation I am in right now, but I am not a typist and there is too much background noise to use voice. Suffice to say I'll be dragging my feet as well in a few days come the first of the month. Again.

    You can use the same numbers by the way. If you only have one complaint per month per 2500 units, why does it take so long to get anything done?

    Good luck with your case!


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    Chumley (profile), Apr 10th, 2014 @ 7:10pm

    Watch what you say

    There are many protected forms of speech that teeter on the brink of defamation.

    Raney's comments (while in spirit may have been true), may be factually incorrect. He has accused the Connor group of things that he may not have the evidence to back up.

    I have read many of Mr. Raney's comments. I have also heard of his actions - many of which are detailed above.

    I do not believe Mr. Raney will survive this lawsuit unscathed. If he thinks he can fight this suit on principle, he is going to be very very disappointed. Even if he is found liable on only one or two counts, the Connor Group will certainly be prepared to present a reasonable estimate of the damage the counts caused.

    To me, this is a story of a real estate firm out of touch with its tenants some two or three levels down, and a man with an ego, who believes he is in the right. Or does he really?

    Prediction: Jim Raney will be found liable of a few of the counts, and STILL be forced to pay out the ass for his ego.


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    RENTNdotORG, Apr 20th, 2014 @ 7:21am

    Re: Watch what you say

    1. 'teeter' - this statement implies, maybe threatens, but says nothing

    2. for example?

    3. Ewww...what have you heard and from who?

    4. Yes, it is better to live on ones knees. I will add you to the list of people who advise not sticking to your principles. (However, I do advise not sticking to your principals.)

    5. Apologetic tone for the company. Not so much for me. (Or do I really believe that?) The 'ego' part is correct.

    6. Again with the 'ego'. Heavy concentration on the messenger. Full disclosure: I'm an asshole. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.


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    RENTNdotORG, Apr 20th, 2014 @ 7:30am

    Re: Watch what you say

    To me, this is a story of a real estate firm out of touch with its tenants some two or three levels down,

    Yea, the more I think about this, the more apologetic it sounds. Plausible deniability? Upper management getting ready to jettison peons under the bus as a blame sacrifice to appease the shit storm gods?


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    RENTNdotORG (profile), Apr 20th, 2014 @ 7:36am

    ...and a man with an ego, who believes he is in the right. Or does he really?

    Does this statement 'teeter' on defamation?


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    Chumley (profile), Apr 20th, 2014 @ 6:15pm

    Re: Watch what you say

    To RENTNdotORG (perhaps I should call you Mr. Raney? - since you identified yourself as "Defendant" on March 28)

    I am not certain why you appear to have a fixation with the word "teeter". I used it appropriately in my first post.

    You also seem to suggest the my comment (see below) "teeters" on defamation.

    I suspect if you were remotely well-versed in the law as you might think you are, you would not be subject to this civil suit. One important concept of a defamation claim is the difference between fact and opinion. Statements made as "facts" are frequently actionable defamation. Statements of opinion or pure opinion are not actionable. In my sentence, I began with the words, "To me", which clearly shows that the words following it were intended to be my personal opinion.

    In YOUR case, the Connor Group has quoted you making factual statements, any one of which, if proven to be factually false, will likely subject you to pay monetary damages.

    I shall not address your somewhat poetic comment: "Upper management getting ready to jettison peons under the bus as a blame sacrifice to appease the shit storm gods?", as it's meaning is not clear, and I tend to avoid metaphors, etc., lest they be misinterpreted. Perhaps you should have avoided that approach yourself before delivering such scathing assessments of the Connor Group.

    I will, however, address this comment that you made:

    "4. Yes, it is better to live on ones knees. I will add you to the list of people who advise not sticking to your principles. (However, I do advise not sticking to your principals.)"

    You may add me to whatever list you desire. That will not necessarily paint me accurately. I will say this much. In the past, I have indeed stood on principle and DID defend my position. Unlike you, however, I did not lose my cool. Before I went on any such rampage, I did my homework. I also made sure I would be able to back up any comment I made with tangible proof.

    For example, before I made a comment like charging the Connor Group with paying people to write nice reviews, I would have asked some of those "people" to sign a notarized statement attesting to such behavior. But I assume too much. I am sure you already DID something resembling that. Certainly you must have secure supporting statements before ever making such a charge, correct? Or did you?

    You were trying to be the "shepherd"? Not the most effective approach, Mr. Raney. Not at all. As I said in my first post, "Raney's comments (while in spirit may have been true), may be factually incorrect."

    This is to say, you may indeed have had legitimate grievances, but in your emotional approach, I believe you erred, and because of that, I truly believe you will lose part of the Connor Group's case against you. And if you lose a little, you still lose.

    If that makes me a bad person for bruising your ego with anything less than unbridled support of your comments and actions, then you live in a fantasy world.


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    Chumley (profile), Apr 20th, 2014 @ 6:21pm

    Re: De facto admission of guilt

    Innocent companies have to pay legal fees like anyone else. Innocent companies who are defamed are entitled to damages like anyone else. Innocent companies don't decide how much they will be awarded IF defamation is proven. Innocent companies simply request a certain amount. They get what the court or a jury determines. Oh, it's the same for guilty companies.


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    Chumley (profile), Apr 20th, 2014 @ 6:41pm

    Re: Re: Watch what you say

    With respect to your "4" above, when I have rented, I have done the following beforehand:

    1. I made certain that the sample apartment they showed me beforehand was identical, or at least materially the same, as the one I actually got.

    2. I made sure all appliances, lighting, electrical outlets, etc. were in working order.

    3. I made certain all entrances and window could be secured secure.

    4. I researched the crime rate in the area.

    5. I looked into the apartment complexes reviews AND spoke with neighbors. I would knock on doors until I found at least three who would speak to me about the complex. If I smelled anything untoward, I went elsewhere.

    6. I read my lease frontward and backward. In fact, I would ask for a sample lease from each complex I visited. None had any problems providing me with one.

    7. I walked around the complex and made sure buildings and the surroundings appeared to be in good repair. Things like trash, weeds, unkempt grounds, poor lighting, etc. were a clear sign of "not good".

    I did other things as well. And you know what? Not ONCE was I ever dissatisfied with an apartment or complex that I rented from. I never got hoodwinked, as you appear to have been - which leads me to believe you are not as forward thinking (aka intelligent) as you promote yourself to be, Great Shepherd. In fact, on occasions, when my job dictated I re-locate, I was often unhappy to leave.

    My ounce of prevention "prevented" the pound of cure you are facing now. I never felt the need to post derogatory comments on a blog to "get back at" anyone, nor the drive to fuel my ego by attacking people who disagreed with me. And I was never sued.


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    RENTNdotORG (profile), Apr 21st, 2014 @ 8:34am

    Re: Re: Watch what you say

    So you added 'To me' to your statement. There's nothing stopping me from truncating your statement, filing a complaint, and punishing you with legal fees. We both seem to have the similar view of the system. You chose to live within the system and shape your conduct around it. I chose to challenge it and accept the cost. You come on here and deride me because you've done the mental calculation already that you can afford to do it.


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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 21st, 2014 @ 8:45am

    Re: Re: Watch what you say

    Yes. I have proof. Any guesses as to where one might find it? I figured a cautious, methodical person as yourself would have looked in the most obvious place before asking an answered question.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    RENTNdotORG (profile), Apr 21st, 2014 @ 9:23am

    And out of curiosity, what do make of the comments of the OSU law school dean and the gentleman from Public Citizen?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

    Anonymous Coward, Jul 8th, 2015 @ 1:18pm

    Been there

    I had to deal with the connor group recently and anything people say about how bad they are is nothing compared to the experience of dealing with them. They are horrible in every way.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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