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.