SAN FRANCISCO - Several corporations, two California attorneys and a few defendants are accused of constructing a scheme using sham lawsuits to suppress negative online reviews about the corporations.
While the description of the case seems like the opening of a bad joke, the plaintiff in this case is taking its claims very seriously.
Consumer Opinion LLC, a company that manages a website called pissedconsumer.com, claims attorneys Mark W. Lapham of Danville and Owen T. Mascott of Palm Desert colluded with other named defendants and conspirators to illegally acquire courtroom orders they used to require search engines like Google and others to de-index the web pages containing negative reviews about their companies.
The 27-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California begins its allegations of the cunning collusion, stating, “This case involves a creative solution to a common frustration for many businesses who do not like negative reviews that are published about them on the Internet.” The challenge companies face when receiving negative reviews is that the reviews are protected by the First Amendment, the complaint says.
The lawsuit identifies four categories of defendants in the alleged conspiracy: entities that file and/or benefit from the lawsuit, also known as the filing defendants; attorneys who knowingly and unethically file and prosecute these fraudulent lawsuits, also known as the attorney defendants; defendants in these fake lawsuits who falsely claim to be the authors of allegedly defamatory statements the stooge defendants; and reputation management companies” that devised and carried out these schemes, also known as the RMC defendants.
The complaint reads, “This scam is not all that is complicated. Google will remove search engine results from its well-known search engine if it is provided with a court order determining that the information is indeed defamatory.”
The complaint contends that the filing defendants failed at suing consumer review companies in the past and through the assistance of the unidentified reputation management companies and the named attorneys, came up with the stooge defendants and sham lawsuits to procure court documents to compel Google and other search engines to "hide" or "de-index" pages from the plaintiff's sites that contained negative reviews.
“It looks like the named defendants were getting a default judgment and getting their order to have negative reviews hidden," Mark Randazza, attorney for the plaintiff, told the Northern California Record. "We are not sure how they found stooge defendants, but I’m going to look forward to talking to them. These are real people; we are going to find out what they knew and how they knew it.”
The complaint argues that once the filing defendants obtained an injunction from the court, the conspirators then approached various search engines, demanded they de-index all the pages of the plaintiff’s website containing the filing defendants’ names, not just the pages with the negative reviews. It describes several example cases in which the named defendants carried out the fraudulent scheme to salvage their online reputation with stooge defendants and false lawsuits to forcibly hide negative reviews for financial gain.
The plaintiffs claim the actions of the defendants harmed it by compelling its web pages to be "hidden" from search engines.
“At the core of this. there is a reputation management company that is coordinating all this," Randazza said. "To be honest, we do not yet know who that is.”
He said they do intend to find out who it is during discovery, and believes the attorneys involved were aware of the scheme, too, and knowingly participated in the charade.
The plaintiff requests a trial by jury, damages, legal fees and injunctive relief to prevent the defendants from perpetuating the alleged fraud.
“As to the traffic loss and financial loss information, I don’t have it in front of me, but we do have articulable damages,” Randazza said.
Randazza said he is representing another case, Opinion Corp v. Frankfort Daily News, where his client alleges defendants are using fake Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) notices to wipe out negative consumer reviews.
“These people take and copy the negative consumer review, buy a domain acting as a news site, stick the review on the website with an earlier publication date, and then send a DCMA notice to make the consumer take it down," he said. "You have to respect the creativity, but these tactics are simply wrong.”