Libel

Injunction to Take Down Critical Sock Puppet Comments

Can a court block multiple statements that seem to come from several people, but that were actually all posted by one person?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Actx, Inc. Dalan, a King County, Wash., trial court stipulated judgment (signed by Judge John R. Ruhl):

13. Kimberly Dalan authored and published the four reviews attached hereto … on the Glassdoor Website ….

14. The Reviews create the false impression that they were authored by four different
former employees of ActX, Inc.

15. Kimberly Dalan no longer possesses and cannot reasonably recover the login
credentials used to publish the reviews attached hereto as Exhibits A-C to the Glassdoor Website.

16. Kimberly Dalan shall use reasonable efforts to delete the Reviews on the Glassdoor
Website, including by presenting this Stipulated Judgment to Glassdoor, Inc. and requesting removal of the Reviews.

Most aspects of the reviews themselves were nonlibelous opinion; here, for instance, is the first review:

Pros
Location is great, friendly Colleagues
Cons
Unprofessional attitude of the founder. He knows everything, you knmv nothing.
Advice to Management
Let your employees do their job.

The Cons in the other reviews were:

Micromanagement: you do not get to make many decisions about how you do your
own work
Lack of Respect: you will be talked down to. regardless of your title and experience
No Human Resources Department means no recourse for grievances
Long hours: you are expected to be available after hours and on weekends …

You are micromanaged at every turn and it feels like there is no trust that you will do your job well or correctly. It can be an incredibly demoralizing work environment when you can hear/see your coworkers get talked down to multiple times a day. While it is technically a startup, it's very much a typical office environment with the lack of attention to morale/lack of rewards for the constant (and expected) long …

– Old school office setting where the boss is always right, and the boss is a man old enough to be your father who wants to ensure you know your place in his world.
– Founder routinely made fun of me for NOT having an academic background comparable to his
— specifically that I did not attend medical school.
– Misogynistic business culture
– Zero professional growth opportunity
– Non-competitive benefits, salary, PTO
– No paid parental leave

But the theory of the judgment is that the falsehood was in the claim that four different people posted these reviews (and that the opinions were therefore shared by at least four people). And this theory might be sound, I think, even in the absence of a stipulation by both parties, though I think any nonstipulated injunction based on this sock-puppetry theory should require the removal of all but one reviews, rather than all reviews.

This also reminds me of New Directions for Young Adults, Inc. v. Davis, a 2014 Broward County, Fla., trial court opinion (written by Judge Carlos Rodriguez):

Plaintiffs, New Directions For Young Adults, Inc. and Dr. Andrew S Rubin[,] … [sued for] Defamation … [and] Tortious Interference with a Business Relationship. The Plaintiffs allege, in pertinent part, that Defendants, Kathy and Brian Davis, tortiously interfered with current and prospective clients of the Plaintiffs when they published on the world-wide-web certain derogatory statements concerning the Plaintiffs' business and reputation….

1. Pursuant to the evidence presented, the Court finds that Defendants created a false impression of a group of negative reviewers about the Plaintiffs when in fact, there is no such group of negative reviewers-only the Defendants.

2. The Court finds that the act of falsifying multiple identities is the conduct to be enjoined.

3. Based on the above-referenced conduct of creating a false impression of a multitude of negative reviews, this Court finds there is a likelihood of irreparable harm to the Plaintiffs….

5. Based upon the factual findings and evidence presented by the Parties, the Court finds that there is a there is a likelihood of irreparable harm to the Plaintiffs and a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, not because the statements are false or true, but because the conduct of making up names of person[s] who do not exist to post fake comments by fake people to support Defendants' position tortiously interferes with Plaintiffs' business….

Defendants shall, at their own expense, remove or cause to be removed all postings creating the false impression that more person are commenting on the program the actually exist. Posting under false names as persons who participated in the program, or are connected to the program or are patients who in fact did not exist is the conduct which is enjoined….

[T]he comments of Kathy Davis or Brian Davis which do not create a false impression of fake patients or fake employees or fake persons connected to program (those posted under their respective names) are protected by [the federal and state constitutions].

Kathy Davis had admitted in discovery to using four separate names in her posts, Cheyanna, Kayla, Kathy D., and William P. (plus an email address); one post, for instance, written under the name Kathy D., began with "I agree totally with William P's review."

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  1. Seems rightful to me. The use of sockpuppets is a form of fraud regardless of whether the statements made under their names are true.

    1. Deception, not fraud – nothing of value is gained.

      1. So if you inflict damage it’s not fraud, because fraud has to involve gain, not loss? I’m not a lawyer. Please clue me in.

        1. Right. Maybe defamation, but not fraud.

  2. Is using one false name “fraud”?

    Was Publius committing “fraud” when authoring the Federalist Papers? (yes yes, different factual scenario – 3 authors claiming to be one, not the other way around).

    If I have 2 login IDs with reason.com (I don’t, it’s just for example) s that “fraud”?

    Seems to me these examples were either poorly lawyered or non-lawyered (and I suspect defendants had few or zero dollars for counsel), rather than being well and thoroughly contested.

  3. It would seem that, even when the review contents consists entirely of opinions, the claim that those opinions are shared by multiple people is a claim of fact, and hence a claim which, of false and having potential to damage a plaintiff’s reputation, is potentially defamatory.

  4. What about unimportant sock puppet comments?

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