Two California lawyers have been accused of participating in a scheme that used sham lawsuits to suppress negative online reviews of businesses.
Consumer Opinion LLC, the company that runs pissedconsumer.com, claims in a suit last month that attorneys Mark W. Lapham of Danville and Owen T. Mascott of Palm Desert manipulated California’s legal system to fraudulently obtain court orders that were used to persuade search engines such as Google to de-index review pages — effectively putting them out of sight of consumers.
The 27-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claims the lawyers employed the “rather brilliant but incredibly unethical” scheme on behalf of so-called reputation management companies that scrub negative information about businesses from the Web.
According to the complaint, the reputation management companies identified individuals willing to pose as the authors of negative online reviews. Lapham and Mascott then sued those “stooge defendants” seeking injunctive relief, the complaint alleges.
The suit points in particular to six defamation lawsuits — three filed by Lapham and three by Mascott, all in Contra Costa County Superior Court earlier this year. The lawsuits, which share similar format and language, settled by stipulation within days of filing, and Consumer Opinion’s lawyers allege that those stipulated judgments were used to demand that search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing scrub entire review Web pages from their search results, not just the alleged defamatory comments.
“The scam is not all that complicated,” wrote Consumer Opinion’s lawyer, Marc Randazza of the Randazza Legal Group in Las Vegas. “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.”
One of the alleged beneficiaries of the litigation, according to the suit, was an Orlando attorney who was the subject of 59 complaints on pissedconsumer.com.
Reached by phone, Mascott said he hadn’t yet seen the suit and declined to comment further. Lapham didn’t immediately respond to a phone message left at the number listed for his firm on the State Bar of California website. Lapham, according to bar records, has previously had his license to practice law suspended on two occasions, most recently for 30 days last year as a result of making a bankruptcy filing for a client in bad faith and failing to report to the bar that he’d been sanctioned $1,000 for the incident.
According to the complaint, many of the suits were brought on behalf of fake companies to avoid detection and were filed in such a way “to avoid the adversarial process ordinarily involved in litigation.” The suit charges the reputation management firms, the attorneys and others who participated in the litigation with fraudulent business practices, abuse of process and civil conspiracy.
Randazza’s firm specializes in First Amendment, defamation and intellectual property cases, according to its website. The attorney filed a colorful amicus brief earlier this year arguing that the invented language of Klingon, created by a linguistics professor for a Star Trek film, cannot be treated as the intellectual property of Paramount Pictures Corp. The firm also represents a father and son under federal investigation for their use of a flame-throwing drone.
Reached by phone, Randazza said that he sees reputation management companies getting more creative in their efforts to remove negative online comments from public view. He recently filed a separate suit in the Northern District of California alleging that reputation management companies had set up fake online newspapers as part of a different review takedown scheme.
“But for the fact that our client has some obsessive-compulsive people working for them, we wouldn’t have found” these lawsuits, Randazza said.
Ross Todd writes for The Recorder, the San Francisco-based ALM sibling of this newsletter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.