SLAPP-Happy Dentists: When Lawsuits Are Used to Fight Bad Yelp! Reviews


A few months back on PolicyMic, I wrote about a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) against Jennifer Batoon, who was sued by her dentist after she wrote a negative Yelp! review on the dentist’s Yelp! page. 

Last week, a new lawsuit surfaced in which another dentist is attempting to silence her critics as well, adding to the growing list of dentists who are attempting to use the legal system to silence any negative reviews of their practice. Cases like the ones discussed in this article emphasize the need for federal protection for those who speak out online so that people can freely speak their mind without fear of retaliation.

Stacy Makhnevich, a dentist in New York, is using a unique tactic to keep her patients quiet after they visit her office. After a negative experience with Makknevich, Robert Allen Lee posted critical comments on two review sites, Yelp! and Doctorbase. Lee was then threatened with legal actions by an attorney for Makknevich because when Lee was at the dentist, among the many papers that he signed was one called a "Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy.” 

In the agreement, Lee promised not to comment on Makknevich’ practice and the dentist promised not to share information about Lee with marketing firms. The contract also stated that if Lee did make a comment about Makknevich, the contract transferred copyright on his comments to Makknevich. 

Makknevich’s office sent notices to the two review sites asking them to take down the comments by Lee because she owned the copyright to them. They also sent invoiced to Lee, charging him $100 a day for copyright infringement. Paul Allen Levy of Public Citizen said that the contract is illegal. Amongst other issues with the contract, Levy said that the offer not to share information with marketing services was misleading because Lee's information was already protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Lee is now suing the dentist for trying to enforce the contract.

But Lee’s case and Batoon’s case are not the only examples of dentists trying to silence their critics. Back in 2009, San Jose dentist Yvonne Wong filed a lawsuit against the parents of a young patient, after the father posted a negative review on Yelp!.

Reflecting on the Wong case, Paul Clifford, an attorney with the California Anti-SLAPP Project, observed: "I think it means businesses should consider whether they really want to sue their customers even if the information they post is negative. Oftentimes, if you sue the person who wrote it, it only brings more attention to it and it may cost you more money in the end."  Dr. Makhnevich’s Yelp! page attests to Clifford’s comments. As of December 6, she has dropped to a 1 star rating and negative reviews keep coming in as this story gets more publicity. 

All of these cases emphasize the need for federal anti-SLAPP legislation. If federal anti-SLAPP legislation were enacted, online reviewers would be protected against SLAPPs and be able to speak freely without fear of retaliation because they could dismiss these suits very early on, saving them both time and money.

But the question remains: of all professions, why are dentists so particularly SLAPP-happy?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons