Outpatient Surgery Magazine: Surgeon Sues Patient for Damning Online Review

 

Surgeon Sues Patient for Damning Online Review

Daniel Cook

Outpatient Surgery Magazine

May 29, 2012

A Florida plastic surgeon thinks anonymous comments made by a former patient on a physician rating website crossed the line between opinion and malicious intent, and he’s fighting back with a defamation lawsuit.

Armando Soto, MD, reacted strongly to postings made on RateMDs.com about a botched breast augmentation procedure he allegedly performed in 2011, according to a published report. He wants the comments removed and is seeking $49,000 in damages.

His defamation lawsuit was originally filed in Virginia because that’s where he and his attorney, Domingo Rivera, thought the complaints originated. However, he plans to drop that suit and file in Florida since subsequently discovering a school teacher in his home state might have posted the negative comments. He believes the teacher posed as several unhappy patients, adding numerous damning remarks on the site.

Mr. Rivera says his client’s lawsuit addresses the difference between opinion and defamatory speech. For example, a post stating that Dr. Soto did “a poor job” is opinion, he says, while comments about breast unevenness or extra scarring are defamatory if they are not true. He believes unhappy patients should return to their physicians to have post-op issues fixed, and accuses the patient in this case of conducting a vendetta against Dr. Soto’s reputation, which the lawsuit is angling to repair and protect.

David Muraskin, a Public Citizen attorney representing the patient, said in the news report that the lawsuit could squelch freedom of speech. He could not be reached for additional comment.

SOURCE

Armando Soto MD

Other Doctors Who Sued For Defamation

Librarian’s Muse: If You’ve Ever Complained Online About A Business, You May Want To Think Twice About It

DECEMBER 7, 2012

“If You’ve Ever Complained Online About A Business, You May Want To Think Twice About It”

Librarian’s Muse

If you’ve ever complained online about a business, you may want to think twice about it. A contractor is suing a Virginia woman for criticizing his work on two major websites, and those bad reviews could cost her big money. Outside Fairfax County court Dec. 5, a lawyer for Jane Perez flipped through pictures allegedly showing botched home repairs. The photos include door hinges, trash allegedly left behind, and what are said to be strands of hair in a refinished floor. James Bacon, attorney for Perez, said, “I think we presented evidence sufficient to establish that the work was not completed, that he charged for work that had not been done, and that the workmanship was very poor.” Perez hired Christopher Dietz — a former high school classmate — in June 2011 to do cosmetic work on her townhouse.

Unhappy with the results, she gave him an “F” rating on Angie’s List.com, a consumer review website. On Yelp, she accused Dietz of damaging her home, billing her for work he didn’t do, and suggested he stole jewelry. She ended her scathing review with this advice, “Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”

Dietz issued his own response, and then fired back with a $700,000 lawsuit for defamation. Dietz said, “There was no question in my mind that I did 150 percent professional job in her house.” He says Perez’s claims are all lies — lies that cost him $300,000 in lost business. Dietz said, “I believe that people should have the right to state how they feel, but when you state stuff as fact and it’s not fact or it’s not able to be supported there has to be some type of — for the lack of better words — punishment.”

Wednesday, Dietz was awarded his first victory. A judge ordered Perez to take down any allegations of theft and comments about legal action.  Bacon said, “If we need to, we will appeal to make sure that people are not afraid to speak out.”  The court still must decide whether there are grounds for a defamation case.

CBS News legal analyst Jack Ford explained defamation and how it relates to this case. On “CBS This Morning” he said, “Our constitutional right to free speech is not absolute. There are limitations on it. For instance, the classic one, you can’t falsely yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. … Because obviously, you can expose people to damage. What you can do is offer up is your opinion about things. As long as it’s clearly an opinion. Here’s what you can’t do. And this is where you get into defamation. You can’t make a false statement of fact that damages somebody’s reputation. So if I wanted to say, in a situation similar to this, I was just not at all happy with the work that my contractor did. That’s okay. That’s my opinion. But if i say, ‘I was not at all happy with the work that my contractor did, and by the way my contractor is an embezzler’ … or ‘he stole jewelry’ or even make the argument saying, ‘He damaged my house,’ now you’re making a statement of fact. The law also says, truth is an absolute defense. So if somebody did damage your house or somebody is an embezzler, then you’re OK. Even though it damages their reputation, as long as it’s true, it’s OK. The classic thing to remember is [defamation is] a false statement of fact that damages somebody’s reputation, as opposed to opinion.”

Ford added, “The Internet is still kind of the wild west. You know, tradition news organizations, we have editorial processes we follow. Reliable sources, fact checking, even though you have the right to do it, is it the right thing to do? If you’re going online, everybody uses this, goes and does research first before they buy stuff. Make sure you’re doing it in terms of a genuine opinion on your part. Here’s the other thing, don’t try and cloak your statement of fact and say, ‘It’s my … opinion that he damaged my house. It’s my opinion this person is a serial killer.’ Just because you say the word opinion, doesn’t mean it’s no longer a statement of fact. The thing to be careful about a statement of fact that’s false and damages their reputation.”

In a similar case, a Minnesota doctor took offense when a patient’s son posted critical remarks about him on some rate-your-doctor websites, including a comment by a nurse who purportedly called the physician “a real tool.”   Dr. David McKee sued the son for defamation. The Duluth neurologist’s case has advanced all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which is weighing whether the lawsuit should go to trial. “His reputation is at stake. He does not want to be a target for false and malicious remarks,” said his lawyer, Marshall Tanick. McKee’s case highlights the tension that sometimes develops on websites such as Yelp and Angie’s List when the free speech rights of patients and their families clash with the rights of doctors, lawyers and other professionals to protect their good names.

David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion, Minnesota Supreme Court Case A11-1154, oral arguments held on Sept. 4, 2012

Source

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

McKee V Laurion Is A Textbook Case

Campbell Law Observer Discusses McKee V. Laurion and Dietz Development V. Perez

JUNE 12, 2013

“Better Think Twice Before Leaving Your Advice”

Businesses take steps to fight negative online reviews of their products and services, causing some to rethink their online activity.

Parker Dozier, Senior Staff Writer, Campbell Law Observer

New technologies continue to produce novel legal questions, and one of the most recent revolves around the posting of negative product and service reviews online.  Websites such as Yelp, Angie’s List, and RateMDs are seen by users as a convenient place to provide positive reviews of meals, home repairmen, and professionals, but these sites have also become a place for users to give negative reviews of their experiences.

Businesses and service providers have not reacted kindly to these virtual criticisms. Some have even resorted to legal action – and won damages – in an effort to remove the negative reviews from the internet.  A 2011 Harvard Business School study found that an increase in ratings of one star (up to a possible five) on the website Yelp raises a restaurant’s revenue by five to nine percent, providing good reason for businesses to be concerned when negative reviews are posted about them online.  But are lawsuits and legal threats the best approach for businesses in trying to eliminate, or at least mitigate, negative reviews? 

Different jurisdictions handle these lawsuits differently, but most have been largely unsuccessful.

The spread of social media has led to expansive growth in online reviews of people’s experiences with everything from restaurants and handymen to doctors and lawyers. Though one negative review by itself probably will not harm a business, a trend of negative reviews can.  Over the last five years, businesses and individuals have filed lawsuits in an effort to bring down negative posts and even, in some cases, have sought damages.  Due to the novelty of the law in this area, however, and the economics of bringing a lawsuit for a single negative review, there has yet to be an outbreak of similar lawsuits.

Different jurisdictions handle these lawsuits differently, but, thankfully for online reviewers everywhere, most have been largely unsuccessful.  Reviewers have the right to free speech afforded by the First Amendment, and airing their legitimate grievances over their experiences falls within their right to express their opinion.  Most of the courts faced with these lawsuits have come to this same conclusion and thrown out the cases.

The Minnesota Supreme Court recently dealt with a case involving the online statements of a man whose father had been treated by a doctor.  In David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion, a man posted on various websites that when he mentioned the doctor’s name to a nurse, she called him a “real tool.”  The doctor brought a defamation lawsuit against the man, but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ reversal of the district court’s summary judgment ruling in favor of the online poster.  The Court found (pdf) that calling someone a “real tool,” among other things, was pure opinion; it cannot be reasonably believed to state a fact or be found to be true or false.  Because the allegedly defamatory statement was pure opinion, it was protected by the First Amendment and was not actionable.

This case provides a forecast of future cases involving negative online statements: one of the main issues will be whether the statements can be proven by the plaintiff to be defamatory.  The statement must be shown to have negatively affected the plaintiff’s reputation or standing in the community.  Negative statements, which are either true or pure opinion, are, however, a defense to defamation claims.

This is illustrated by Dietz Development, LLC v. Perez, a Virginia case involving a woman who was unhappy with the work of a home contractor she had hired.  The contractor sued her in October of 2012 for $750,000 in damages for her online statements and pursued a preliminary injunction to have the review removed.  The trial court agreed with the plaintiff and entered a preliminary injunction against the defendant, forcing her to take down certain portions of her review.  Following the injunction order, the story gained traction in the media, and several organizations aided the defendant in applying to the Virginia Supreme Court for a petition of review.  The Supreme Court sided with the defendant and ordered the trial court to vacate its prior order (pdf).  The Court found that the contractor would still be able to pursue his defamation claim and seek damages, but an injunction was not proper because damages were still available to him. 

Those businesses that believe a lawsuit is the best response to negative online reviews should consider several factors.

Those business owners and individuals who believe that a lawsuit is the best response to negative reviews online about them or their businesses should consider several factors.  First, lawsuits are expensive.  Is getting a review taken down or potentially winning damages worth the amount of money you will spend in court costs and lawyers’ fees?  Second, businesses who sue over negative online comments could be subject to increased ridicule and even more negative online comments.  For example, after the suit was filed in Dietz Development, LLC, many users voiced their disbelief via review websites over the company suing a dissatisfied customer for $750,000.  These low ratings and negative comments stemming from consumers’ reactions to their legal actions, rather than poor products or services, could significantly impact the revenues of these businesses-turned-plaintiffs.

Some professionals, particularly in the medical field, attempted to use agreements or contracts that were to be signed by the patient before the doctor provided services in order to protect their reputations.  Around 2010, these agreements were rapidly spreading in the medical field and were generally referred to as mutual privacy agreements.  Interestingly, many of these contracts were based on a contract created by a North Carolina company, Medical Justice.  The agreements stated that in exchange for the doctor not selling the patient’s name to marketers, the patient would not post anything online about the doctor or the patient’s experiences.  HIPAA, however, already prevents doctors from selling patient information without their prior approval.

Late in 2011, the Center for Democracy and Technology filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Medical Justice for their creation of this contract.  They alleged the contract was not only unethical but also an illegal prior restraint on the patients’ right to speak and unenforceable under contract law.  In response to this complaint, Medical Justice, based out of Greensboro, stated that they advised everyone to stop using the contract.  Since then, Medical Justice has changed their approach, now encouraging patient reviews and providing services to doctors to more effectively manage their online reputation without resorting to forcing patients’ silence.

Being more receptive to negative comments is the better policy for businesses and individuals moving forward. 

Medical Justice’s change of heart and strategy regarding online reviews hopefully foreshadows the way all businesses and individuals will move forward in this area. Lawsuits trying to remove single posts probably cause more problems than they solve, as do attempts at quieting individuals before they post online.  Being more receptive to negative comments is the better policy for businesses and individuals moving forward. Not only does it eliminate the bad publicity created by lawsuits and prior restraints, reaching out to aggrieved consumers can also improve both businesses’ and consumers’ experiences.  Businesses can find out what they may not be doing well, while also trying to rectify bad experiences that the reviewer had, creating positive publicity instead of negative.

Finally, it is important to remember that when posting online, you should stick to the facts and your opinion.  Your reviews can help not only other potential consumers but also the businesses and individuals you have reviewed in improving their products and services.  Exaggeration and outright lying, however, can be defamatory and are actionable in the court of law.  This is an extremely new area of the law but one that likely will continue to grow as more people post reviews online and even more rely on them in making daily decisions.

Full Article

Parker Dozier was a second-year law student and serving as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer when this article was published. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011, where he majored in History and Geography. Parker has been an extern at the Transportation Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice. Parker may be contacted at wpdozier0720@email.campbell.edu.

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

McKee V Laurion Is A Textbook Case