A Georgia personal injury firm has won a permanent injunction against an online legal marketing company that used deceptive tactics on Google to recruit and redirect potential law firm clients.
Montlick & Associates secured the injunction against Texas-based Exclusive Legal Marketing in a consent order signed by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg on May 29 in Atlanta. The marketing firm purchased use of Montlick’s trademark, the firm name, and common misspellings of “Montlick” from Google as advertising keywords in its search engine, according to the order.
ELM then used those keywords to generate online advertisements that appeared whenever consumers searched for Montlick, the order said.
The injunction bars ELM from directly or indirectly bidding on, buying and running ads based on keywords that included “Montlick & Associates,” “Montlick” or common misspellings.
The injunction also bars ELM from misappropriating office backgrounds used by Montlick in the firm’s own online ads, Montlick advertisements or the firm’s own websites in recruiting and rechanneling potential customers to ELM clientele.
The marketing firm also is barred from referring any legal cases resulting from the Montlick ads. In addition, the consent order bars ELM from rankings that compare Montlick or its lawyers to other law firms.
Totenberg’s injunction marks at least the third state where ELM has been permanently barred from capitalizing on Google ad policies by misappropriating other, often more recognizable, firm and attorney names, according to court documents and representatives of firms that sued.
Internet links to Exclusive Legal Marketing were disabled Thursday. ELM’s Atlanta attorney, Robert Ward, did not respond to email or voicemail messages.
In an interview with the Daily Report last year, Jerry Bryant—who founded and operated ELM with his brother, Cody Bryant—acknowledged the company “bid on a lot of keywords, and we bid on our competitors’ names.”
But Bryant insisted the practice was not deceptive.
Mark VanderBroek, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Atlanta, who represented Montlick in the federal litigation, called ELM’s practices “an online version of the bait-and-switch scheme.”
VanderBroek said ELM’s online ads were crafted so that consumers would assume they had contacted Montlick & Associates, instead of the legal marketing firm. Built into the online ads was a call button that would direct potential Montlick clients to a call center. Call center operators were trained to answer the phones generically so as not to reveal they were not affiliated with Montlick.
If asked by a potential client if he or she had actually reached Montlick & Associates, call center representatives were trained to dodge the question and continue the ruse by asking a caller for additional information.
ELM operators would then text or email callers a legal contract that could be signed online. The name of the Georgia law firm that ELM directed callers to most often was included on the contract “in very small print” that was largely overlooked, VanderBroek said.
“It was obviously a matter of competitors trying to get a free ride on Montlick’s good will and reputation,” he said.
Monge & Associates, to which ELM referred virtually all of its Georgia calls, and Google were not named as defendants in the federal suit, he said.
VanderBroek said Montlick discovered the online deception after receiving calls from several people looking to check on the status of their cases. “People were actually confused. They were not only being diverted to other folks. They were thinking they were signing up with Montlick,” he said.
VanderBroek said that, while ELM now appears to be out of business, “There are a lot of other law firms and lawyer referral services employing the same type of misleading bait-and-switch tactics, trying to get a free ride on the goodwill of firms like Montlick that have spent a lot of time and money to develop their good reputation.”
Morgan & Morgan filed complaints against ELM in Georgia and Florida with allegations similar to those made by Montlick & Associates.
In those suits, Morgan & Morgan also named as defendants Monge & Associates and Jacksonville, Florida, personal injury firm Farah & Farah.
On Thursday, Morgan & Morgan attorney Damien Prosser, who handled the law firm’s litigation against ELM, said the two suits were “amicably resolved” in December and January.
“Buying other lawyers names should be illegal,” Prosser said. “Especially the way some of these lead generators are doing it—it is certainly deceptive. Until then, we will ferociously prosecute and protect our brand and the rights of unsuspecting consumers who are being misled.”
Scott Monge did not respond to email and voicemail messages from The Daily Report seeking comment. Farah & Farah principals Charlie Farah and Eddie Farah also did not respond to emails, and the Florida firm’s public information staff member did not reply to a voicemail.
Two Ohio lawyers, Scott Schiff and Kevin Kurgis also sued ELM and Coety Bryant in the Southern District of Ohio last year, claiming they misappropriated the law firms’ trademarks and rechanneled potential clients to two Cleveland firms, and a Dayton firm.
Last March, U.S. District Judge Michael Watson of the Southern District of Ohio signed a consent order and issued a permanent injunction barring ELM from referencing Schiff or Kurgis in any online ads.