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.

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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 2:06am

    "Well, we had to drop that case. Time to focus on the other 27 currently in the works..."

    While it's nice that at least some judges are starting to catch on to the people using their courts as part of their 'business practices' those abusing the system still have plenty of motivations to continue on, 'business' as usual. They drop a case to avoid a ruling they don't like? Eh, there's always more people looking to bury unflattering articles out there willing to pay to make it happen.

    When judges start handing out some hefty benchslaps for cases like this then those companies/individuals might stop abusing the system for fun and profit, but until that happens, and happens consistently and across the various courts, expect them to continue on same as before.

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

    • icon
      sophisticatedjanedoe (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 7:10am

      Re: "Well, we had to drop that case. Time to focus on the other 27 currently in the works..."

      I share your pessimism. While reading this story, I couldn't help seeing a parallel between this fraud and Prenda's Cook county shenanigans. If you don't remember, Steele/Hansmeier colluded with a "defense" attorney Adam Urbanczyk in order to secure an "agreed order" to subpoena ISPs for addresses of thousands of future shakedown targets. I wrote about it 4 years ago.

      Judge Taylor clearly saw this massive fraud, there is absolutely no doubt about it, yet a mild slap of the wrist was the only result. It took federal courts, dedicated attorneys, and 4 more years to dismantle Prenda. Meanwhile, Steele is still practicing (as well as disbarred Hansmeier - vicariously through his wife), shaking down small businesses. And if Urbanczyk is ever indicted over this, I'll be immensely surprised.

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

      • icon
        killthelawyers (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 7:29am

        Re: Re: "Well, we had to drop that case. Time to focus on the other 27 currently in the works..."

        The Prenda attorneys have been disbarred and will likely be bankrupted after the attorney fees and fines by the court are finalized. You can be pessimistic, but the courts do not look kindly upon people who commit fraud with the aid of the system.

        If there are attorneys involved in these cases, they will be disbarred. Full stop. If there are not, they will likely be referred for criminal unauthorized practice of law and false swearing charges. The most impressive thing about this scheme is just how brazen and stupid it is. Once you're caught, your name will lead back to every other case you've filed. Doing this once is tempting fate. Doing this 20+ times means there is only a matter of time before you're caught.

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

        • icon
          art guerrilla (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 7:39am

          Re: Re: Re: "Well, we had to drop that case. Time to focus on the other 27 currently in the works..."

          yes, but as one of the anointed ones, they CAN 'do this' 20+ times with no consequences...
          nobodies like you and me ? ? ? we can't even *think* about spitting on the sidewalk without draconian consequences...
          the system is skewed, and we are screwed...

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

          • icon
            killthelawyers (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 10:19am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: "Well, we had to drop that case. Time to focus on the other 27 currently in the works..."

            Well, I suppose as an "anointed one," I have to respond to this. The reason why the courts put so much trust in lawyers is because we are a profession built on trust. To enter the profession you must prove your basic competence and that you do not have any significant ethical or legal issues which should prevent you from practicing. Once you enter the profession, you are expected to have a certain degree of candor with the court. When people do things like this, neither the courts nor the bar will ignore it. The reason they succeeded is because its such a brazen breach of ethical duties that it's almost unfathomable that a lawyer would try it. The system is set up to depend on the adversarial nature of proceedings as a first check against this type of behavior, with a second check being the ethical screening of attorneys. When you violate both, there is a gap that will be difficult to root out, which is why the courts are going to hammer absolutely everyone caught doing this. It is not a perfect solution, but it's certainly not "no consequences" and, in many cases, will be more draconian than what the average person will face.

            The point is well taken that it's horrifying to think about that someone can do this 20+ times without suffering consequences and this could certainly lead to changes in how the court requires proof of service to be delivered.

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

            • icon
              That One Guy (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 6:19pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: "Well, we had to drop that case. Time to focus on the other 27 currently in the works..."

              When people do things like this, neither the courts nor the bar will ignore it.

              Nice idea in theory, not really applicable in practice. They pulled their con for years, and when their copyright trolling started getting too much attention they simply switched to other abuses of the courts, getting minor slaps on the wrist the entire time.

              One of them died, one of them had his license temporarily suspended(for all the good it did), and the other is still untouched.

              It may be 'pessimism' but it's fully justified pessimism, brought about by watching a pack of parasites blatantly use and abuse the legal system over the course of years to enrich themselves at the expense of others and getting only stern warnings and slaps on the wrist the entire time, when anyone not a lawyer would have had the hammer brought down on them for even doing a fraction of the same things.

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

        • icon
          Norahc (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 10:39am

          Re: Re: Re:

          No, they haven't been disbarred. Duffy died, Hamsmeier got suspended and no word yet on what's going to happen to Steele.

          That being said, this certainly looks like Prenda 3.0

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 3:35am

    Something something turn slowly...

    So I'm guessing it will take about 6yrs for one of the stars of this sort of hijinks to finally hit a court who will see if for what it is.
    Then we can start the timer on how long it will take the system to punish those who have done wrong, and most likely the slap on the wrist will barely dent the cash income they got paid.
    Then someone will cook up an idea to hire lawyers off of CL for $250 an appearance to just file some paperwork and maybe appear once.
    And the system will slowly figure this one out....
    and in 6 more years after all of the appeals are finally exhausted... they will be onto the next hoodwinking of the system and all the timers will reset again...

    and we wonder why so many people dislike lawyers...

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

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 5:24am

      Re: Something something turn slowly...

      I cannot award you the PRENDA SEAL OF APPROVAL (tm) because you failed to mention heavy popcorn consumption and cinematographic bankruptcy in the end.

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

  • icon
    Groaker (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 3:56am

    There is a gross excess of attorneys, far beyond the needs of even our litigious system. They have to find some way of making a living. And most are bright enough, and sufficiently familiar with the system to provide all sorts of creditable, if illicit, scams.

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

    • identicon
      Rana, 26 Oct 2016 @ 6:39am

      Re:

      There is a gross excess of attorneys, far beyond the needs of even our litigious system.

      Nah, you can never have too many lawyers. The more you have, the more you need!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2016 @ 4:12am

    Grammarz

    "put >>>>their

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2016 @ 4:20am

    All "reputation management" is a scam

    Just like all "search engine optimization" is a scam.

    Just like all "email marketing" is a scam.

    Have you noticed that it's quite often the same people involved in all of these? The con game changes, but the cast of characters doesn't.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2016 @ 4:52am

    Any word on whether this behavior is related to those websites that all suddenly decided to drop their comments sections?
    It may be that some lawyers noticed this happening before you and the courts and quietly tidied away their comments sections before it became an issue...

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

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 5:21am

    So basically you can make up Law Suit McLaw and the court will buy he exists without checking (most of the time) and as long as you don't get to the part Mr McLaw has to show up then you can fake a settlement and produce a favorable court order. Terrific!

    So this, along with the fact that the defendant has to bear the costs of any bogus lawsuit simply screams the US justice system is ups for sale for the highest bidder. Me thinks a deep reform is needed there.

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

    • identicon
      Michael, 26 Oct 2016 @ 8:10am

      Re:

      "and the court will buy he exists without checking"


      I actually doubt that this is exactly the case happening. From what I see, it looks like these are cases in which the defendant is intentionally doing something (or not doing anything all) so the plaintiff can sue them and then settling - and then using the settlement order to get a web page de-listed.

      This could all be done with a legitimate entity acting as the plaintiff and one as the defendant and nobody would have to commit perjury on an appearance (which could land people in jail pretty quickly). The plaintiff and defendant working in concert like this may not actually be illegal.

      The fact that these orders are being used to get a third party to do something is the real issue.

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

      • icon
        That Anonymous Coward (profile), 26 Oct 2016 @ 9:44am

        Re: Re:

        They are suing the made up person, not the site.
        They show up with a letter signed by made up person admitting what they did was wrong and not opposing the order to have the post go away.
        Game set match.

        There are cases where the 'defendants' can not be found but have names magically similar to the posts of others.
        There are cases where they post a statement themselves that is defamatory, to open the door to their poster to say I was naughty I don't oppose the order.

        This is fraud upon the courts, the only questions
        - how long have they been getting away with it
        - how many other operations do something similar
        - how many more will pop up after this story goes wider
        - how long will it take for the system to do anything
        - how much content has been lost
        - how many crappy people have hidden their bad reputations & ripped-off more people
        - how little will the punishment end up being

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

  • identicon
    Whoever, 26 Oct 2016 @ 10:52am

    How websites need to respond.

    The first response that websites need to do is to put a time limit for posting comments. Then a deliberately defamatory comment cannot be used to take down a page long after the page was originally created.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2016 @ 6:31pm

    Ask for the obvious

    This abuse of court process is quite interesting and creative.

    ... And all it takes to stop it is a photo ID. Did a judge never confirm the defendant was who they say they were? Couldn't they just ask for a driver's licence?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2016 @ 9:38pm

    Courts should not be ordering delistings.

    Period. Even if it is defamatory. Let the plaintiff sue the defendant for damages, but don't order censorship. That would put a quick stop to this practice.

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


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