The answer is that Google and various other Internet platforms have a policy: They 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.
Yet the trouble is that these Internet platforms can’t really know if the injunction was issued against the actual author of the supposed defamation — or against a real person at all. That’s why we have incidents like this:
1. Matthew Chan, a Georgia resident, posts a negative review of Mitul Patel, a Georgia dentist, on Yelp and a few other sites. (Readers may remember this story, which we blogged about in August; that’s the incident that got us investigating this issue.) Several months after Chan puts up his post, Yelp emails him, saying that it’s about to take his comment down because it received a court order that was issued against him, and the court concluded that his comment was defamatory.
But wait!, says Chan — he’s never been sued. And sure enough, the order is against a supposed Mathew Chan of Baltimore. As best we can tell, no such Mathew Chan exists in Baltimore, but in any event no Baltimorean is the author of the post. Yet the order is supposedly based on that Mathew Chan agreeing with Mitul Patel that the review was defamatory, and should be removed. (As we’ll see below, Mitul Patel and some of the other plaintiffs state that they did not authorize the lawsuit or sign the pleadings, though they did hire a “reputation management company” to do something.)
2. Steve Rhode, who lives in North Carolina, runs getoutofdebt.org, where he writes about (among other things) what he sees as abusive practices by debt relief firms. Over the past few years, he has criticized such companies, including two California companies called Financial Rescue and Rescue One Financial.
Over the past year and a month, three suits have been filed, in Rhode Island federal court, in Maryland state court, and in Florida state court, claiming that various comments on several separate posts defamed these debt relief companies. The Rhode Island case is part of the pattern we describe above; the other two cases are slightly different, in that they involve lawsuits brought by lawyers rather than by ostensibly self-represented plaintiffs.
Let’s focus for now on the suit in Rhode Island. The complaint objects to an allegedly defamatory comment that discussed Rescue One Financial, citing two blog posts, one of which is about Financial Rescue. But neither company sues Rhode, who might well have fought back.
Instead, a lawsuit is filed ostensibly on behalf of Bradley Smith — the chief executive of Rescue One Financial — against one Deborah Garcia, who supposedly lives in Rhode Island. As best we can tell, no-one by that name lives at the address given for her.
“Deborah Garcia” stipulates to a libel judgment, which the court promptly enters. The order is submitted to Google with a request to remove that page from Google indexes, so that no-one can find it using Google; Google complies.
3. 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.) 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.
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.
No lawsuit against the newspaper based on its initial story would have succeeded, partly because the newspaper’s report may well have been accurate, and partly because the statute of limitations had expired. But because the theory of the case was that the “Robert Castle” comment had defamed the parent, that tail was used to wag the dog: The ostensibly libelous comment was used as a justification for an order apparently aimed at deindexing the whole newspaper article. (The order has apparently not yet been submitted to Google, though there has been an attempt to use a bogus copyright takedown request to get Google to deindex the newspaper article.)
4. Other lawsuits have apparently aimed at deindexing
- An article in the Charleston Post & Courier that discussed the indictment of a local businessman,
- A federal court opinion posted on Leagle.com that dealt with a criminal forfeiture in a child pornography case,
- A Web page critical of a rich Indonesian businessman,
- A Web page critical of so-called “cremation diamonds” that are supposedly made from the ashes of loved ones,
- Posts on Dharmawheel.net critical of a California Buddhist leader,
- A wide variety of RipOffReport.com complaint pages,
- And many more.
We have seen such lawsuits in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas. About half of them have been in the Baltimore area and in Philadelphia.
And the 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.
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Who is behind these cases? For many of these, we don’t know. As we mentioned, many of the plaintiffs might well not have known what was happening. They might have hired a reputation management company, expecting it to get the negative posts removed legitimately (e.g., through a legitimate libel lawsuit, or through negotiation with the actual authors).
But in four of these situations, the lawyers for the ostensible plaintiffs report that they, or the companies that they lead, dealt with one particular reputation management company; and another case seems to be connected to that company as well.
A. The lawyer for the real Bradley Smith alleges that Smith’s signature on the Rhode Island complaint was forged. He also states that Smith “does not recall authorizing” the suit filed in his name on a similar complaint against an apparently fictitious defendant in state court in Baltimore.
Smith’s lawyer passed along a contract that Smith’s company, Rescue One Financial, signed with a company called “RIR 1984 LLC,” headed by one Richart Ruddie. RIR was to be paid $6,000 per month to apply its “proprietary de-indexing program” so that “negative posts from Steve Rhodes [sic]” “will be de-indexed using our proprietary methods.” The contract was aimed in part at “insulating against negative Google search results,” specifically by “remov[ing]” “Steve Rhodes [sic] articles.”
B. After Matthew Chan filed a motion to vacate the Maryland state court “consent order,” the ostensible plaintiff (Mitul Patel) filed his own motion to vacate, stating to the court that Patel “has been caused to suffer negative publicity via internet news blogs as a result of the attempt by the party purporting to be Plaintiff MITUL R. PATEL’s attempts to have negative reviews of [Patel’s] Dental practice removed from internet review websites.”
Patel’s motion states that Patel did not actually file the lawsuit, and it attaches a letter from Patel’s lawyer to Richart Ruddie. The letter alleges that Patel had signed an SEO contract with a Ruddie-led entity called “SEO Profile Defense Network LLC,” and alleges that this entity “apparently forged Dr. Patel’s signature to a Complaint and Consent Motion.” (Patel’s lawyer has steadfastly refused to produce the contract in question.)
C. We likewise have 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.
D. 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, Md. 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.
Indeed, a few days after this lawsuit was filed, a Profile Defenders press release announced,
Profile Defenders Lawsuit Removal service honors a guarantee to take down and [sic] defamatory or unwanted webpages from search results as long as they meet specific criteria…. The future of online reputation management is moving into permanent removals…. The Profile Defenders lawsuit removal service is now available and pricing starts at $6,000…. Legal services provided by the profile defenders team and in house council [sic] have proven to be successful….
We asked Ruddie and SEO Profile Defenders several times to comment, but their only response, to our initial inquiry about Patel, was, “We deny these allegations and we have no further comment. When and if we do we will contact you.” But, to give them the last word, here is something from Richart Ruddie Entrepreneurial Blog, dated Sept. 8, 2016:
Just be a good person – Richart RuddieHad one of the nicest compliments this past weekend. A new friend said “Chart do you know why I like you?”“At the end of the day you’re just a genuine person Richart Ruddie” ….
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Eugene Volokh is a law professor at UCLA School of Law. Paul Alan Levy is an attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group.