An unexpected turn occurred during a Dallas firm's multi-year search for the identity of a person who allegedly wrote a negative review about the firm.
Lenahan Law first sued a "Ben Doe," in December 2011, but amended its petition in September 2012 to assert its claims against "Ben Miller." The review on Google says, "Bad experience with this firm. Don't trust the fake reviews here."
But now, the personal-injury firm alleges that an employee of a "competitor's law firm" posted the "defamatory review," according to a July 12 Plaintiff's Motion to Retain in Lenahan Law v. Ben Miller.
Randy Johnston, who represents Lenahan Law, says there is a real person named Ben Miller, but he did not write the review.
"He is a somewhat of a victim of this scam, as is Marc Lenahan," Johnston says about Miller.
He adds, "[T]his is not a lawsuit against a client, or an attempt to quiet someone who has a legitimate grievance. Marc would never do that — he would deal with the person to solve it. … I would hope that people would recognize that outing those who make false reviews helps us all. The whole review process is meaningless if people can just go in and trash you with lies."
The July 12 motion alleges, "Continued investigation determined that an employee in the course and scope of his service to a competitor's law firm actually posted the defamatory review of Plaintiff's law practice. Neither the employee nor the employer are actually named 'Ben Miller.' The employee used that name as an alias to conceal the true identity of the employee and the employer."
The motion notes the parties were scheduled for mediation on July 17. But a July 17 Supplemental Plaintiff's Motion to Retain says the mediator "wishes to continue to mediation so that the matter may have its 'best chance for final resolution.'"
Included as "Exhibit A" to the supplemental motion is a letter from attorney-mediator Mark W. Gilbert. The letter includes the subject line, "RE: Lenahan Law PLLC v. Mitchell Meabe, Ben F. Abbott and Ben Abbott, PC."
Gilbert addressed his letter to Johnston, Paul Wingo of the Law Offices of Ben Abbott in Garland, and 98th District Judge Rhonda Hurley.
Wingo and Ben F. Abbott each didn't return a telephone call seeking comment before deadline.
Down the Electronic Rabbit Hole
Johnston, shareholder in Johnston ◊ Tobey in Dallas, says that before the negative review was posted, if a person searched for a Dallas firm, Lenahan Law was among the first results.
"They had their pick of good cases, the phones ringing off the wall. … Then just overnight the phones stopped ringing," he says. "They fall off the charts. They are all of a sudden nowhere on there. It had a profound effect on them."
Information the firm received in discovery led to Ben Miller in California. But when the firm confronted Miller, Johnston says it learned, "he did nothing wrong." [See "Doe No More? Firm Seeking Answers in Online-Review Suit," Texas Lawyer, Oct. 22, 2012, page 1]
Miller's attorney, Michael Morrison of Janssen Malloy in Eureka, Calif., didn't return a telephone call seeking comment.
Johnston recalls that the path since then involved a forensic computer expert who busted an alias and found the alleged author's real identity.
"There's a phenomenal electronic trail out there that can be followed by those that know how to do it," says Johnston, adding, "They are like an electronic bloodhound — they can get a scent and follow it through all kinds of permutations to the person doing it."
Johnston alleges when the review was posted, the real author lived in the same Oregon apartment complex where Miller lived.
"Another person falsely identified himself as Ben Miller," Johnston explains.
Johnston says once Lenahan Law had the alleged author's real name, it learned about his alleged association with a law firm.
"The person linked himself to the law firm, listed himself as an employee of the firm on applications," explains Johnston. He notes he's confronted the firm's leader who expressed, "shock and embarrassment and regret."