Wes Black says he’s been fielding calls from lawyers around the country ever since news broke that his firm was suing a Doe defendant who the firm alleges wrote a false, negative online review about the firm.
“This is definitely a hot-button issue, not just in the legal world, but everywhere,” says the Lenahan Law Firm partner, who has been giving other lawyers guidance on the complicated process his firm followed in efforts to learn the identity of the anonymous online reviewer.
His advice? If the online review is a mistake, “you just have to do everything to find the person who made the mistake and rectify it. Unfortunately, sometimes a lawsuit and the subpoena power of the courts is the only way to do that,” says Black.
He notes his firm may be near the “final chapter” of its ordeal after learning what it believes is the reviewer’s identity and reaching him through email.
It took nine months for the firm to learn the identity of a Google user, “Ben,” who the firm alleges wrote a false Google Places review that reads, “Bad experience with this firm. Don’t trust the fake reviews here.” [See "Dallas Firm Sues Doe Defendant Over Online Review," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 16, 2012, Page 5.]
In a Sept. 27 first amended petition and motion to cure style, the firm alleges that a California resident named Ben Miller wrote the review, and provided an address.
“Plaintiff believes that no attorney or other employee of Plaintiff . . . has ever had any contact with Defendant Ben Miller, nor has the firm or any attorney employed by Plaintiff’s firm ever represented Mr. Miller in any capacity whatsoever,” says the amended petition in Lenahan Law v. Miller, filed in Travis County’s 98th District Court. The petition alleges the review is defamatory.
The firm also alleges that “none of the reviews of the Plaintiff’s legal services are ‘fake reviews’ and all were written by actual clients of the firm.”
The firm brings causes of action for defamation and negligence. It asks the court for injunctive relief, a finding the review is defamatory, actual damages, court costs, and pre- and post-judgment interest.
“Our goal is just to make sure the people who want to find us and want to find information about us don’t have inaccurate information to deal with,” Black says.
Texas Lawyer could not locate a telephone number for Ben Miller, and as of press time, has received no response to a letter mailed on Oct. 15 to the address that the petition lists for him.
Revealing a Reviewer
When asked about its policies regarding removing online reviews, Google spokeswoman Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg referred Texas Lawyer to an article on Google.com that says a person can click a “Flag as inappropriate” link next to a review. Google may remove reviews if they contain inappropriate content, advertising and spam, off-topic content or a conflict of interest, says the article.
“If something is flagged as inappropriate, we will then check if the review violates these guidelines and follow-up if we find that it does,” Todhunter-Gerberg writes in an email.
Another attorney at Lenahan Law Firm tried working with Google to remove the review, but “[W]e were unable to get a result helpful to us,” Black recalls.
Todhunter-Gerberg didn’t respond to an email seeking comment regarding that.
After filing suit in December, Lenahan Law Firm subpoenaed Google and learned the Internet Protocol (IP) address and email addresses of the Google user who allegedly wrote the review, Black says. One of the email addresses contained the name Ben Miller.
The firm traced the IP address to the Internet service provider Comcast Cable Communications, and in March the firm asked the 98th District Court in Travis County to order Comcast to release “documents and items related to the identity of the user of the IP address.”
The Comcast information revealed the IP address was linked to an apartment management company that maintained the one IP address for all its residents, says Black.
After receiving subpoenaed materials from the apartment management companyon Sept. 20, Black says he located Ben Miller’s name and email address in the records.
Miller no longer lived there, so Black says that he used online people-finder tools to locate a physical address connected to Miller in Northern California.
So far, the litigation has cost the Lenahan Law Firm nearly $1,000, and Black estimates he has spent 40 to 50 hours drafting court documents and reviewing discovery materials. Attempts by the firmto reach Miller through email and mail went unanswered until Oct. 15; Black writes in an email that a person identifying himself as afamily member of Miller’s called him.
Black says firm partner Marc Lenahan spoke with the family member, and Black writes in an email, “[W]e are now communicating with Ben Miller himself via e-mail.”
Black says, “We’re happy we finally made some progress.”
Angela Morris is a reporter for Texas Lawyer, a Legal affiliate.