The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Several days ago, noted Internet lawyer Marc Randazza and his colleagues filed a lawsuit alleging that various defendants were misusing the court system to try to get online criticism deindexed by Google and other search engines. This isn't the scheme that Paul Alan Levy and I wrote about, though it allegedly has a similar aim: It involves lawsuits filed by real lawyers against real defendants, but the question is whether the defendants are at all related to the posts that they allegedly wrote and that the plaintiffs (or the people behind the plaintiffs) want to see hidden online. (The people at Pissed Consumer first alleged it earlier this year.)
1. This case involves a creative solution to a common frustration for many businesses, who do not like negative reviews that are published about them on the Internet. However, removing consumer reviews from the Internet is a difficult process given that they are protected by the First Amendment.
2. Nevada Corporate Headquarters, has gone to great lengths to attempt to suppress consumer reviews in the past. It has filed at least one SLAPP suit in Nevada seeking injunctive relief to censor those negative reviews. In that case, Nevada Corporate Headquarters suffered a resounding loss when they were hit with an anti-SLAPP order. . . . They also lost at summary judgment in a SLAPP-back suit. That action resulted in a significant judgment for attorney fees and costs. . . .
3. Undaunted by these set-backs, Nevada Corporate Headquarters has now conspired with other companies and individuals to create a scam whereby they suppress negative reviews from the Internet, while evading any First Amendment or due process considerations. This scam also allows them to avoid the risk of another anti-SLAPP attorney fee award.
4. Several other businesses and professionals who have been the subject of negative reviews online have also employed the same fraudulent machinery as Nevada Corporate Headquarters, as a means of removing this content while evading detection and liability.
5. The scam is not all that complicated. Google will remove search engine results from its well-known search engine if it is provided with a court order determining that the information is indeed defamatory.
6. However, when Nevada Corporate Headquarters sued consumer review websites in the past, it was severely disappointed. (See Exhibits 1 & 2.) Therefore, they needed to concoct a new censorship scam. So they used a stooge plaintiff, ZCS Inc. ("ZCS"), to sue a stooge defendant, Collins Mattos ("Mattos").
7. Defendant Doe Corporations, so called "reputation management companies," conceived and organized the scam as an alternative way to remove negative posts in lieu of undergoing an adversarial proceeding. Several other businesses and professionals have contacted these "reputation management companies," which have used similar schemes to remove negative consumer reviews about them.
8. The other conspirators engaged attorneys Mark W. Lapham ("Lapham") and Owen T. Mascott ("Mascott") to file sham lawsuits either by the subjects of the negative reviews or by corporations that had no interest in the allegedly defamatory statements, against a defendant who most certainly was not the party that published the allegedly defamatory statements, and the parties immediately stipulated to a judgment of injunctive relief, so the conspirators could provide the order to Google and other search engines, thus achieving the goal of deindexing all pages containing negative reviews.
9. At first blush, Defendants' scam appears rather brilliant but incredibly unethical. Now that Plaintiff has uncovered and exposed Defendants' unlawful deeds, Consumer Opinion LLC respectfully requests that this Court discipline them for those misdeeds. . . .
11. There are four categories of Defendants in this scheme:
(1) the entities that file and/or benefit from the suit (the "Filing Defendants"); (2) the attorneys who knowingly and unethically file and prosecute these fraudulent lawsuits (the "Attorney Defendants"); (3) the "defendants" in these fake lawsuits who falsely claim to be the authors of allegedly defamatory statements (the "Stooge Defendants"); and (4) the "reputation management companies" that devised and carried out these schemes (the "RMC Defendants"). . . .
FACTS SUPPORTING CLAIMS
35. Consumer Opinion LLC operates a website residing at the uniform resource locator ("URL") <pissedconsumer.com> .
36. <pissedconsumer.com> is a consumer review website where individuals can share information about their experiences with businesses providing goods and services, thereby allowing consumers to make better choices between competing products and giving consumers an empowering and unbiased view of companies and products.
37. The First Amendment and various state anti-SLAPP statutes protect the right to publish opinions and true statements of fact. Therefore, aside from improving their business standards, there is little a company can do to prevent individuals from publishing negative opinions or true facts about them.
38. Moreover, under 47 U.S.C. § 230, providers of interactive computer services like <pissedconsumer.com> cannot be held liable for defamatory statements individuals post by and through their interactive services.
39. Understanding the difficulties of removing reviews consisting of negative opinions or statements of true fact, Defendants conspired to misuse California's legal system to hide the unflattering statements from the consuming public by having popular search engines such as Google to deindex the webpages containing the comments.
40. RMC Defendants are "reputation management companies" that offer services to help individuals rehabilitate their on-line image. The Filing Defendants engaged RMC Defendants to achieve their goal of minimizing the impact of negative reviews on pissedconsumer.com.
41. RMC Defendants first identified individuals or entities willing to stand in the place of the professionals or businesses that were the actual subject of negative reviews on <pissedconsumer.com>. At this time Plaintiffs do not know if the nominal plaintiffs in the fake lawsuits had pre-existing relationships with the benefited parties of these lawsuits, or if they were simply engaged for the limited purpose of serving as the sham plaintiffs in the fake lawsuits. The conspirators likely understood that if the benefited parties brought the action in their own name, the scam was more likely to be discovered.
42. Next, RMC Defendants and Filing Defendants sought out someone willing to take responsibility for posting one or more of the allegedly defamatory comments. They found these individuals in the Stooge Defendants.
43. It is unclear whether Stooge Defendants were actually responsible for posting any of the allegedly defamatory statements at issue in any given fake lawsuit. However, it is clear that they were not responsible for posting all of the reviews on <pissedconsumer.com> and comments posted in response to the reviews. Nonetheless, in each case the conspirators successfully used the scheme to obtain an injunction ordering all of those reviews deindexed, which was precisely their goal.
44. It is also not clear what RMC Defendants and Filing Defendants offered the Stooge Defendants to secure their cooperation in their scheme to remove First Amendment protected reviews from pissedconsumer.com.
45. Of course, the conspirators required a cooperating attorney willing to file a bogus lawsuit on their behalf. Accordingly, they invited attorneys Mark W. Lapham, Esq. and Owen T. Mascott, Esq. to join the conspiracy. They accepted.
46. Like most review websites, the profitability of pissedconsumer.com is directly tied to the amount of traffic the website receives. Also, like most websites, individuals usually locate the website through the use of search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.
47. Many consumers considering the purchase of goods or services will search for information about a company prior to purchasing good or services by entering the name of the provider into a search engine. By causing the pages to be deindex, Defendants deprived consumers of information posted about the businesses and professionals benefited by these fake lawsuits, and thereby undermined the value of the <pissedconsumer.com> website to the consuming public.
48. Defendants' actions caused further long term damage to pissedconsumer.com by limiting the usefulness of the website to obtain information about individuals and companies providing goods and services to the consuming public.
The Mattos Case
49. ZCS, Inc. filed a bogus complaint against Collins Mattos in California Superior Court for Contra Costa County, claiming that Mattos had posted defamatory statements about ZCS, Inc./Nevada Corporate Headquarters on a consumer gripe website operated by Plaintiff Consumer Opinion LLC. (See Complaint in ZCS, Inc. v. Mattos, Case No. C16-00425 (hereinafter referred to as the "Mattos Case"), attached hereto as Exhibit 3.)
50. In reality, the statements at issue concerned only Nevada Corporate Headquarters.
51. Based on Nevada Corporate Headquarters' unsuccessful attempts to remove reviews from Plaintiff's website in the past, Defendants understood that Plaintiff would resist requests to have the statements removed, especially statements that had not been adjudicated to be defamatory. Therefore, instead of seeking removal of the statements, Nevada Corporate Headquarters conspired with ZCS and Collins Mattos to file a sham lawsuit for the sole purpose of entering a stipulated judgment and permanent injunction. According to the scheme, the conspirators then delivered a copy of the stipulated judgment to Google and other search engines demanding that they deindex all negative reviews about Nevada Corporate Headquarters.
52. Plaintiff is informed and believes and based thereon alleges that Defendant Doe Corporation, operating as a reputation management company, conceived of the plan and organized the cooperation of ZCS, Collins Mattos, and Mark W. Lapham to bring the plan to fruition.
53. Defendant ZCS, Inc. is an inactive California Corporation. Plaintiffs are aware of no business operations of the company, other than standing in the place of Nevada Corporate Headquarters in the underlying litigation. Nevada Corporate Headquarters provides consulting services to businesses, including providing information and offering assistance with incorporating businesses.
54. Since September 2010, four individuals have posted complaints about Nevada Corporate Headquarters on pissedconsumer.com. Additionally, twenty-nine comments have been posted in response to those four complaints. The vast majority of the comments have been negative.
55. Plaintiff is informed and believes and based thereon alleges that at the bequest of Defendant Doe Corporation and with the full cooperation of Defendant Mattos, Mr. Lapham filed a complaint on behalf of ZCS, Inc. against Collins Mattos for defamation. (See Exhibit 3.)
56. In the underlying action the conspirators sought only injunctive relief. Specifically, the complaint requested an injunction that Collins be "prohibited from creating statements about Plaintiff or its officers, managers, employees, business partners, agents, servants, attorneys, representatives, products, goods or services, which defame, disparage, or contain libelous statements about Plaintiff," and that Mr. Collins be "ordered to take all action, including but not limited to, requesting removal from the internet search engines including Google, Yahoo!, and Bing, of all defamatory, disparaging, libelous, and false statements about Plaintiff that Defendant has posted on the Internet."
57. Curiously, the prayer for relief did not request an order directing Mr. Collins, to take all action to remove or request removal of the statements from <pissedconsumer.com>. The conspirators did not want to bring the scheme to the attention of anyone who would shine light on their unlawful actions.
58. Mr. Lapham filed the Complaint on March 2, 2016.
59. The next day, March 3, 2016, Mr. Lapham filed a Stipulation for Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction with the Superior Court. A true and complete copy of that Stipulation is attached hereto as Exhibit 4.
60. Having obtained a stipulated injunction from the Court, the conspirators then approached various search engines including, on information and belief, Google, Yahoo!, and Bing and requested that those search engines deindex the pages of <pissedconsumer.com>. Instead of limiting the deindexing to the pages that contained statements Mr. Collins claimed to have posted, the request to deindex included all web pages with entries about Nevada Corporate Headquarters.
61. By engaging in this scheme, Defendant Conspirators obtained a court order under false pretenses and used the court order to persuade popular search engines to deindex every statement about Nevada Corporate Headquarters, including the First Amendment protected statements of opinion and true fact posted by other individuals who were not a party to the underlying action. . . .
[Details of the other cases omitted for space reasons—see the Complaint for more. -EV]
FIRST CLAIM FOR RELIEF
Unlawful, Unfair, and Fraudulent Business Practice under California Business and Professions Code § 17200 (Against All Defendants)
. . . 118. The acts and conduct of Defendants, and each of them as alleged above in this Complaint constitute unlawful, unfair, and/or fraudulent business acts or practices as defined by California Business and Professions Code § 17200 et seq. . . .
SECOND CLAIM FOR RELIEF
Abuse of Process (Against All Defendants)
. . . 124. Defendants did not file the above described actions for the purpose of determining the liability of the Stooge Defendnats or assessing an amount of damages. Rather, the Defendants filed the complaints for the purpose of obtaining a court order to serve on third party search engines such as Google in order to persuade those search engines to deindex portions of Plaintiff's website. Defendants filed the actions to avoid the adversarial process ordinarily involved in litigation.
125. As a result of Defendants' unlawful acts, Plaintiff Consumer Opinion LLC was damaged. Specifically, for a time when individuals searched for information about the beneficiaries of the fake lawsuits, search engines no longer produced any results indicating that consumers had posted information about the beneficiaries on the pissedconsumer.com website. Those consumers did not proceed to pissedconsumer.com and did not learn of the negative reviews. . . .
THIRD CLAIM FOR RELIEF
CIVIL CONSPIRACY (Against All Defendants)
. . . 128. Defendants, and each of them, conspired, confederated, and colluded with the other defendants to engage in the above described scheme which constitutes a fraudulent and unfair business practice and an abuse of legal process to Defendants' economic benefit and Plaintiff's economic harm. . . .
134. Accordingly, all Defendants are jointly and severally liable for the actions of their co-conspirators.
The initial complaint also included a case brought by a plaintiff called ADN, on behalf of Dan Newlin. But Newlin was then dropped from the complaint a few days after it was filed, because it turns out that he was the one who first alerted Pissed Consumer to what was going on. Newlin stated to me that the firm had "hired a reputation management company to monitor and help the firm's online presence, which included search engine results," but was then surprised to learn that a case had been filed—without the firm's approval—to get the Pissed Consumer page deindexed. He then promptly told Pissed Consumer about this (Pissed Consumer confirms this) and also alerted Google as well. It is certainly possible that some of the other defendants likewise were unaware that the "reputation management" people whom they hired were filing such lawsuits on their behalf.