“Apartment-Complex Owner Sues Former Tenant Over Online Jabs”
By Dan Gearino, The Columbus Dispatch, March 14, 2014
A Columbus man faces a lawsuit with potential damages of more than $1 million because of comments he made online about his experience renting at a Northwest Side apartment complex. James Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, commented on several forums about his time at the Meridian off W. 5th Avenue. He used a comic tone to contrast the complex’s purported “luxury apartments” and his view of their reality.
The complex’s owner, the Connor Group of Dayton, responded to Raney’s comments with a defamation lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. It accuses Raney of making untrue statements with the intent to financially damage the company.
Other Connor critics say the suit is nothing more than an attempt to silence someone who is expressing opinions shared by large number of current or former tenants. In the legal world, this is often called a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, said Christopher M. Fairman, an associate dean at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Some states have laws that limit such suits, but not Ohio. “This is a poster child for a SLAPP suit,” he said. “The purpose is to silence critics.” He said Connor Group might have been better off ignoring Raney. By suing, Fairman said, the company risks amplifying the criticism and doing additional damage to its reputation.
Connor Group takes a different view. Ryan Ernst, a Connor spokesman, had this statement: “We think it’s our responsibility to accept factual criticism and act on it. But when that criticism is untrue, malicious and defamatory, that crosses the line. In those cases, we’re always going to stand up for ourselves and our associates.”
The company owns or manages more than 14,000 apartments in five states, including nine complexes in central Ohio.
In the suit, Connor asks for damages of “in excess of $25,000” each for a series of about 30 statements by Raney.
The statements, which the company says are untrue and defamatory, include the following:
- Connor is “gaming the system” by paying people to write positive reviews on apartment ratings websites.
- The company does not spend enough money for needed repairs at its properties.
- Connor “financially raped” residents with high fees.
The company has many online critics, including more than 500 people who are members of a Facebook group called Tenants Against Connor Group. The Better Business Bureau website shows an “A” rating for Connor Group, though it also lists 309 complaints in the past three years and “a pattern of complaints” about maintenance issues, utility billing and poor communication.
Several members of the Facebook critics group were contacted, and they agreed with Raney’s comments, but few agreed to be interviewed for fear of being sued. One who did agree to speak, Cincinnati accountant Chris Tope, called Connor “a very difficult company to deal with.” He moved out of his Connor-owned property last year.
Raney, who declined to comment for this story, posts some of his information using the pseudonym “John Yossarian,” the name of the main character in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22. He began posting two years ago about his experiences at the Meridian, which was about the time he left the complex. He has since started a blog, www.rentn.org, that comments about Connor Group as a whole and the company’s top executive, Larry Connor. On a recent post, he retouched a photo of Connor to make him look like the Emperor from the Star Wars movies.
The personal nature of the criticism probably contributed to the lawsuit, said Paul Levy, an attorney at Public Citizen. The national consumer-advocacy group has represented people in cases like this but is not involved in this one. “It tends to be small to midsize companies” that sue for defamation, he said. “It tends not to be the General Motors of the world. It tends to be a company where there is an individual who built the company, and he doesn’t like it when the online world criticizes it.”