Florida Plastic Surgeon Should Not Be Able to Unmask Critic in Virginia Courts

May 4, 2012

Florida Plastic Surgeon Should Not Be Able to Unmask Critic in Virginia Courts

Doctor Has Not Provided Evidence to Justify Releasing Identity of Online Critic, Public Citizen Argues in Brief

WASHINGTON, D.C. – An Orlando, Fla., plastic surgeon should not be able to unmask an anonymous online critic because doing so would stifle free speech, Public Citizen said in a motion filed today. Additionally, the case has no reason to proceed in Virginia courts.

Unhappy patients of Dr. Armando Soto posted on www.RateMDs.com that his services did not live up to their expectations and that they did not have a good experience with him. For example, one patient complained that he felt his liposuction procedure didn’t work and that his love handles actually were bigger.

Claiming that the comments constituted defamation and interfered with his contracts and business opportunities, and that the online posters had conspired against him, Soto filed a complaint in Henrico County, Va., circuit court on Dec. 6, 2011, against 10 anonymous critics. He chose the court because “some defendants may be located within the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the complaint alleged. The motion filed today explains that the claims have no merit and that the suit improperly seeks to force individuals to litigate in a state that has no connection to them or the subject of the suit, thus causing them expense and hardship.

Soto’s lawyer, Domingo Rivera of Virginia, previously filed at least one nearly identical suit. In Rajagopal v. Does, Rivera sued in the same Virginia court, raising the same claims, on behalf of a California doctor unhappy about comments made about her California practice stemming from a San Francisco newspaper article.

As in this case, Public Citizen represented the anonymous speaker in Rajagopal. After Public Citizen got involved, Rivera dropped the case.

“Dr. Soto and Mr. Rivera have abused the Virginia judicial system by bringing a meritless suit with absolutely no ties to Virginia,” said Greg Beck, a Public Citizen attorney representing the commenter. “Based on the nature of the allegations and Rivera’s track record, one can only assume that the suit was filed solely to chill the patients’ speech. Soto is trying to coerce his patients to remove their postings.”

Added David Muraskin, another Public Citizen attorney representing the critic, “The court should not allow itself to become the go-to jurisdiction for physicians from across the country who are unhappy about online criticism. The meritless claims and the filing of the suit in Virginia warrants an award of sanctions against the plaintiff and his counsel in this case.”

Soto subpoenaed Internet provider Comcast to release the identity of Public Citizen’s client. The Comcast subpoena should be quashed because Soto has failed to demonstrate that its claims have merit or that the comment is unworthy of First Amendment protection, the motion argues. 

“The criticism in question is entirely opinion – not fact – which is protected by the First Amendment,” said Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, which is co-counsel in the case. “Moreover, the speech at issue addresses public concern regarding the performance of a physician and his products, and thus goes to the heart of the speech protected by the First Amendment. If people were allowed to sue over comments they don’t like, without the legal checks in place, it would have a chilling effect on free speech,” Glenberg added.

Public Citizen for years has defended First Amendment rights on the Internet. For more information on those cases, visit: https://www.citizen.org/Page.aspx?pid=396

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Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org