Paul Alan Levy has gone digging and possibly found one of the entities tied to the bogus defamation suits being used to delist negative reviews. Working with Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy (where this article is cross-posted), Levy has discovered even more lawsuits being filed against nonexistent defendants to expedite the removal of content from the web.
There are about 25 court cases throughout the country that have a suspicious profile:
All involve allegedly self-represented plaintiffs, yet they have similar snippets of legalese that suggest a common organization behind them. (A few others, having a slightly different profile, involve actual lawyers.)
All the ostensible defendants ostensibly agreed to injunctions being issued against them, which often leads to a very quick court order (in some cases, less than a week).
Of these 25-odd cases, 15 give the addresses of the defendants — but a private investigator hired by Professor Volokh (Giles Miller of Lynx Insights & Investigations) couldn’t find a single one of the ostensible defendants at the ostensible address.
As Levy and others (namely Pissed Consumer) have noted recently, this practice seems to be on the upswing, along with the hasty creation of bogus "news" sites to assist in the generation of bogus DMCA takedowns targeting unflattering reviews and posts.
The standard M.O. for these bogus defamation lawsuits is described here in yet another case uncovered by Volokh and Levy.
A California newspaper writes a story in 2013 about an elementary school parent who had put fake signatures and falsely attributed quotes on a petition. (The petition was urging the school not to change its gifted education program.) The newspaper quotes the parent as apologizing for her actions.
Two and a half years later, a comment appears on the story: The comment, signed “Robert Castle,” accuses the parent of being prejudiced and taking bribes, though it also says the commenter is drunk and isn’t sure he’s talking about the same person that the story describes.
Then, within a few months, a lawsuit is filed in Shasta County — not where the incident happened — against supposed Shasta County resident “Robert Castle,” claiming the comment is defamatory, and alleging that Castle agrees to an injunction. (The Baltimore, Rhode Island, and California lawsuits share a good deal of legal boilerplate.)
That's where the story would normally end. Once the injunction is approved, the order is forwarded to search engines for the delisting of the URL cited. This one, however, almost has a twist.
Instead of just granting the injunction, the judge demands that the parties come in for a hearing, noting, among other things, that “there is a purported signature of Defendant Robert Castle” but no proof that such a defendant was served.
If only this had moved forward. But the lawyers filing these bogus suits aren't stupid. (Or at least they're not completely braindead.) Like others in the trolling business, these lawyers are greeting pushback from judges as something to be routed around, rather than addressed.
The docket does not report that the hearing was ever held; instead, a similar case is then filed in Los Angeles County, also far from the scene of the underlying incident, with the same plaintiff and the same defendant. An injunction is indeed issued. Yet as best we can tell no Robert Castle lives in Shasta County.
More details have also surfaced in a case Levy is still dealing with -- the filing of a bogus defamation lawsuit on behalf of dentist Mitul R. Patel against an unhappy patient. In this peculiar case, both the supposed plaintiff and defendant claim to have had their signatures forged on the court documents used to secure an order to delist content.
Patel's motion to vacate the bogus lawsuit points a finger at a reputation management firm SEO Profile Defense LLC -- led by Richart Ruddie -- which Patel alleges filed the suit (and forged his signature) without his knowledge after he signed a contract with it for reputation management services.
Additional details uncovered by Levy and Volokh suggest this isn't the reputation management firm's first bogus lawsuit rodeo.
We have likewise obtained confirmation that Profile Defenders, a Richart Ruddie company, was hired by two of the plaintiffs in the other cases that fit the pattern we described in the opening paragraphs.
The earliest case that we could find fitting this general pattern was filed in November 2015 — and it had as the plaintiff R. Derek Ruddie in Owings Mills, Maryland. Richart Ruddie was apparently born in Owings Mills, and Derrek (though with two r's) appears to be his middle name; the address given in court documents has been associated with Richart Ruddie in various records. And the monthly payments under the reputation management contract signed by Rescue One Financial are to be made to Ruddie’s company at a bank located in Owings Mills.
The defendant in this November 2015 case, true to form, could not be found at the address listed in the court documents. The lawsuit itself succeeded in using a comment, ostensibly derogatory of Ruddie — though it didn’t use Ruddie’s last name — to get a whole RipOffReport.com post deindexed. (The comment was, “Hey Rich whats the deal with this guy you recommended? Does he give you a kick back or something?”) That RipOffReport post was critical of a lawyer, who we assume was the main beneficiary of the November 2015 lawsuit. The lawyer has declined to say whether he had any reputation management agreement with Ruddie.
Ruddie's Profile Defenders has recently announced a "lawsuit removal service" in a grammatically-challenged press release. (All errors in the original.)
The future of online reputation management is moving into permanent removals. As the best online reputation management company thanks to the highest success rate int he industry Profile Defenders decided that the best future move for their clients was to go beyond just traditional suppression work of pushing down unwanted search results in favor of good ones.
Jordan a reputation analyst stated that "While we are still the best for suppression we wanted to go above & beyond what our clients wants and needs are and that involved completely removing and getting rid of search results. Most clients are astonished with the end result. Just yesterday we had a client who said he had used 4 other reputation companies and did not think it was possible and he is glad that profile defenders proved him wrong and doing the impossible." The most common site that we have been able to remove has been Ripoffreport.com. Being the only company that can currently guarantee removals from there has been a boom to our business. While the pricing is not cheap you are certainly paying for what you get.
Ruddie and Profile Defenders have refused to comment on any the allegations nor provided more specifics about the services they offer (which start at $6,000), but the PD website proudly declares the vaguely-defined "service" is a hit -- again using grammar best described as "outsourced."
Reviews on our lawsuit removal service is a top hit from all of our clients. From big time corporations to innocently defamed victims who have suffered from cyber stalkers and anonymous posters who decided to create harmful material about them online have agreed that our service for removing things that are bad or negative about you online is as good as it gets. Our lawsuit service has our internet defamation specialists setup with you for handling the removal of any material that is currently harming you.
What we are able to do for the removal has been nothing short of astonishing to most of our clients. Since anybody can hide behind a curtain and write whatever they would like online on popular consumer advocacy and review websites it is no stopping what appears online at first. That was until we created a service to help facilitate the legal aspect that is needed to have your bad information reviewed. We have to be vague on the details legally until we speak with you and put you in touch with the proper defamation attorney in your locale to handle your case.
For more information fill out the form to the left or give us a call today.
pictured existent: form to the left.]
That's where things stand now. Some people in the SEO/reputation management business have found a legal loophole that seems to be working for the time being. Pushing unchallenged libel suits through lower courts is likely a low-risk activity, given the existence of more difficult and time-consuming cases sitting on most dockets. Unfortunately, as Levy points out, a case currently in front of the California Supreme Court could make California the bogus lawsuit venue of choice.
[T]he possibility of such shenanigans bears on the Hassell v. Bird litigation that is now before the California Supreme Court: The issue there (see here and here) is whether takedown injunctions can actually be made legally binding on Internet platforms, rather than just being something that platforms choose whether to follow. The questionable nature of many such injunctions is reason to further insist that platforms not be legally bound by them.
DMCA takedowns have always lent themselves to abuse. Now, unfortunately, the judicial system is helping out bad actors in the reputation management business for taking down more content, however inadvertently. This is why people claiming that CDA 230 needs a DMCA-style "takedown" system are wrong.