Are businesses (or their reputation management companies) suing fake defendants in order to get rid of negative online reviews? That's the argument made by Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen's Paul Alan Levy recently in the Volokh Conspiracy.
The duo looked at 25 court cases that followed a suspiciously similar pattern. First, a self-represented company, often with ties to a reputation management firm, sues a defendant for a defamatory online review. Then, the defendants agree to an injunction which quickly results in a court order to take down the allegedly offending content. Suddenly: poof, no more bad review. But when someone tries to find track down those defendants, they're no where to be found. Indeed, they might not even exist.
The Case of the Missing Defendant
Why conjure up a fake defendant and bogus litigation, you might ask? The answer, as Volokh and Levy explain, is fairly straightforward:
[Google and other internet platforms] won't take down material (or, in Google's case, remove it from Google indexes) just because someone says it's defamatory. Understandable - why would these companies want to adjudicate such factual disputes? But if they see a court order that declares that some material is defamatory, they tend to take down or deindex the material, relying on the court's decision.
Volokh and Levy detail a host of bizarre lawsuits that seem to follow nearly the same pattern. Here's a representative example. A Georgia man named Matthew Chan complains about his dentist on Yelp and other sites. Several months later, Yelp pulls the review, due to a court order. A Matthew Chan had been sued, but not the Georgia Chan. Instead, this Matthew Chan was in Baltimore -- a person who, according to Volokh and Levy, doesn't seem to exist.
In another case, a debt relief company sues to remove a series of blog posts on abusive practices written by Steve Rhodes. But they don't sue Rhodes, who is based out of North Carolina. Instead, one lawsuit goes after Deborah Garcia of Rhode Island, another unlocatable defendant. Garcia stipulates to a libel judgment and Google is soon sent a court order resulting in Rhodes' posts being yanked from Google's search results.
To make matters worse, the ostensible plaintiff's in both Chan's and Rhodes's case claim that their signatures on the complaint were forged and that they never authorized the lawsuits.
That's One Way to Manage Your Reputation ...
So what's going on here? The common thread in many of the cases, according to Volokh and Levy, seems to be a reputation management company headed by Richart Ruddie, which advertises a "lawsuit removal service" to get rid of "slanderous material" on the internet.
Ruddie declined to comment on Volokh and Levy's investigation.
But, if Ruddie is drumming up bogus suits to get negative content ripped from the web, he wouldn't be the first. The website Pissed Consumer reported earlier this year that online reputation management companies in California were allegedly using "suspicious plaintiffs" (read: fake) to file defamation suits for the benefit of third party companies.
Some web platforms, for their part, are fighting back against the sort of schemes Volokh and Levy detail. Yelp will go before the California Supreme Court soon, to challenge a default judgment against a negative reviewer and a resultant court order telling Yelp to remove the post. (There don't seem to be allegations that the absentee defendant in that case is not real, though the Los Angeles Times notes that service was delivered to an address where she no longer lived.) Yelp argues that the orders violate the company's First Amendment and Due Process rights, though it has been unsuccessful in the lower courts so far.