by Paul Alan Levy
I had previously suggested that similarities in the wording of consent orders in Patel v. Chan, filed in state court in Baltimore, and Smith v. Garcia, filed in federal court in Rhode Island, implied that some black-hat SEO outfit might be responsible for frauds on both courts. Since then, lawyers for both plaintiffs have identified a single individual, Richart Ruddie, as being involved. A joint blog post that I wrote with Eugene Volokh, published today, points to more than two dozen cases around the country that follow this pattern, and we cite evidence pointing to the central involvement of a single reputation management operation run by Richart Ruddie under a variety of company names. The facts that Richart Ruddie is a native of Owings Mills, a suburb of Baltimore, and that his contract calls for payments into a bank in Owings Mills, could explain why so many of the phony cases have been filed there.
What We Have Learned from the Motions to Vacate in Baltimore
Since I blogged about these cases, Matthew Chan has moved to vacate the order that was entered against his reviews of Mitul Patel, and Patel, rather than consenting to Chan's motion, has filed his own motion to vacate the decision, claiming that he never signed the papers and never authorized papers to be filed on his behalf in that court. Patel's moving papers attach a letter from Stuart Oberman, his Georgia counsel, who asserts that Richart Ruddie was Patel's reputation management operative. Oberman accuses Ruddie of filing the Baltimore state court lawsuit, and blames Ruddie for the fact that the Streisand Effect has besmirched Patel's reputation.
Patel's counsel, although claiming to be outraged by Ruddie's conduct, has steadfastly refused to produce the contract in question. He cannot be concealing this document to protect Ruddie, so I have to wonder what it is in the contract that Patel feels he has to hide. Does the wording of the contract suggest that Ruddie's phony lawsuit, despite Oberman's letter complaining about the impact on Patel's reputation, is exactly what Patel was paying him for? If its contents are comparable, they could show that Patel gave Ruddie blanket approval to file lawsuits in his name.
Moreover, Ruddie's web site makes clear that he is providing a "lawsuit service" whose methods cannot be safely discussed in public: “We have to be vague on the details legally until we speak with you." So at the very least we need to know what "details" were revealed to Patel once he contacted Ruddie and made clear that he was prepared to pay a pretty penny to have negative material about him taken offline.
Finally, after Ruddie's firm obtained the "consent" order from the Maryland court (assuming as Oberman asserts that it was Ruddie's firm that did the dirty work), documents provided by Yelp show that it was Patel himself who emailed that order to Yelp, asking that the Chan review be taken down - this request used an email address which Patel has used for several other purposes. And the consent order that Patel provided to Yelp contained the signature that Patel now says was forged, and it also contained the signature of "Mathew Chan" over a signature block showing an address that Patel must have known was phony (because he knows where his former patient lived). So I am not inclined to believe that Patel was as innocent of the methods being employed on his behalf as he and his team of lawyers would now like us to believe. Whether Patel can be held personally liable for the actions taken on his behalf by the Ruddie companies acting as his agent remains to be seen.
Implications for Future Cases
We know that phony lawsuits of this kind are a widespread problem throughout the country thanks to the exhaustive research to which Professor Volokh and I refer in our joint article. I give full credit to my co-author because it was his painstaking research that identified so many similar cases around the country. And it was the pro bono work of Giles Miller of Lynx Insights and Investigations that tracked down the fact that so many of the supposed defendants who "agreed" to consent orders do not exist. Because both Steve Rhode and Matthew Chan have good claims for sanctions, civil discovery may well allow us to uncover additional information about the full extent of the fraud at work here.
On the other hand, I expect that Ruddie will prove a slippery character – the home page of his “Profile Defenders” web site provides a New York City street address that appears to be phony (a letter I sent him at that address demanding that he preserve relevant documents came back undeliverable), and both the Linked In and Google profiles of Profile Defenders show a Washington, D.C. address that does not exist. Moreover, Florida’s records reveal that Ruddie maintains a stable of many different LLC’s. It may take the investigative resources of a federal or state grand jury or of the Federal Trade Commission to track him and his assets down, and bring him to justice.
At least two cases involving Steve Rhode’s blog were filed by lawyers rather than in pro se guise. One such Maryland state court case was filed on behalf of Bradley Smith, and was aimed at the de-indexing several pages about Rescue One Financial, so I assume that this is a case fomented by Richart Ruddie in furtherance of his agreement get pages de-indexed. Not only has the lawyer in that case has never responded to me, but it appears that he has retained counsel to respond to inquiries about his representation (considering the possible bar charges, this strikes me as a wise choice). The lawyer in a Florida case filed to secure de-indexing of a blog post about a different debt relief company – filed against Bradley Smith as a defendant – told me that the case came to him in a package, although he has refused to say from whom. In yet another another lawyer-filed case that Professor Volokh was able to identify in his investigations (not involving a Rhode web page), the lawyer identified a Richart Ruddie company as the source of his information. The lawyer said that he had no reason to discredit Ruddie’s representations.
Some, but not all, of the lawyers who are used in this scheme are relatively junior lawyers who are practicing by themselves and may well have been quite anxious for new business. Certainly, they did not ask enough questions. Going forward, though, we can expect even new lawyers to inform themselves about Ruddie and turn down the business lest they, too, be charged with filing forged papers.
At the same time, the breadth of the problem should give Google and other search engines greater reason to exercise caution in "deindexing" web pages when consent orders are submitted as a basis for denying consumers access to web pages that criticize individuals and businesses. And now that the California Supreme Court has granted discretionary review in Hassell v.Bird, we can hope that courts will have second thoughts about subjecting interactive web sites to liability, or even to injunctive relief, based on defamation judgments that do not represent determinations by a trier of fact based on an adversary proceeding. Here at Public Citizen, for example, we have in the past refused to remove comments on this blog where the court orders about those comments had been obtained by default. The widespread success that scammers have achieved without any real showing of a basis for liability is a good reason to respect the discretion of hosting sites to decide whether to honor injunctions issued against their users.
Finally, this is an area in which judges need to do a better job of protecting the interests of absent parties. If two parties, whether pro se or otherwise, want to settle their differences by agreeing that the defendant is going to pay the plaintiff money, or that the defendant is going to subject himself to an injunction in favor of the plaintiff, that is the two individual parties' decision to make. Judges should certainly take precautions, as the judge did in the Shasta County California case that we cited in our joint blog post, to be sure that the defendant has been served before even a consensual order is entered. But when an injunction recites that a third party is to be obligated to act, or even just expected to perform, judges should be on their guard. It is surely a disappointment that so many judges were hoodwinked by the filing of pro se papers into entering injunctions that were so plainly intended to spur action by third parties that were hosting reviews or including critical web pages in their search engine indexes, but without any notice to the third parties.