If you want to get a piece of information removed from the internet, there are few tools more powerful that a court judgment saying that it is defamatory. A judgment like that will get Google to de-index the result and frighten most web-hosts into getting rid of it. So it follows that the sleaziest end of the "reputation management" industry has occupied itself with securing these court orders at high volumes and low costs.
At least 25 US federal lawsuits appear to be part of such an effort. In these cases, lawyers or self-represented plaintiffs file defamation suits over online comments, then the defendants stipulate to the defamation in writing, and the plaintiff gets a judgment they can take to web-hosts and search engines.
But how to get defendants to agree that their remarks — which are generally fair comment, and sometimes anonymous — were illegal acts of defamation? By suing imaginary people. In these 25 cases, the "defendants" appear to be fictitious people.
In some cases the defendant isn't anonymous: Matthew Chan of Georgia, posted a negative online reviews of his local dentist, Mitul Patel; someone claiming to be Patel filed a lawsuit against Mathew Chan of Baltimore — who appears to be a fictitious person. The stipulation that imaginary Baltimorean Chan sent to the court is an apparent forgery.
But that's not the only forgery: the legal filings on Patel's behalf also seem to have been forged, though no one knows exactly who forged them — Patel can only say that he signed a "reputation defending" contract with a company owned by a guy named Richart Ruddie, whose name crops up a lot in these cases, including the oldest-known example of the genre, from 2015.
This kind of forgery doesn't always go smoothly, though. In one case, the forger claimed that a defendant called Robert Castle lived in Shasta County, California. The judge in Shasta County wanted to see this Castle fellow, so the forger simply walked away from the suit and filed it again in Los Angeles county, against the imaginary Shasta County Castle, and the judge there signed off on it.
In some cases, the accused defamer is anonymous, and in those cases, the forger has an easier job. Simply invent an imaginary person, have that person agree that they are the guilty party and sign a letter admitting it, and the court order is done.
There are at least 25 cases like this, and their filings have a lot of cut-and-pasted text, suggesting a common author. In a careful investigative report, UCLA law prof Eugene Volokh and Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy raise a body of evidence that suggests that Richart Ruddie is the culprit; Ruddie runs "reputation management" companies that offer "permanent removal" of embarrassing online content, starting at $6,000 and going up from there.
The people who hired Ruddie to scrub their online reputations say they didn't authorize him to file these fraudulent lawsuits and claim that their signatures were forged on court documents.
These sorts of shenanigans are radioactively illegal, and fall into the danger zone of things-that-make-judges-look-stupid, and given that those same judges will potentially decide the fate of those who perpetrated the forgeries, it looks grim for them.
B. After Matthew Chan filed a motion to vacate the Maryland state court "consent order," the ostensible plaintiff (Mitul Patel) filed his own motion to vacate, stating to the court that Patel "has been caused to suffer negative publicity via internet news blogs as a result of the attempt by the party purporting to be Plaintiff MITUL R. PATEL's attempts to have negative reviews of [Patel's] Dental practice removed from internet review websites."
Patel's motion states that Patel did not actually file the lawsuit, and it attaches a letter from Patel's lawyer to Richart Ruddie. The letter alleges that Patel had signed an SEO contract with a Ruddie-led entity called "SEO Profile Defense Network LLC," and alleges that this entity "apparently forged Dr. Patel's signature to a Complaint and Consent Motion." (Patel's lawyer has steadfastly refused to produce the contract in question.)
C. We likewise have confirmation that Profile Defenders, a Richart Ruddie company, was hired by two of the plaintiffs in the other cases that fit the pattern we described in the opening paragraphs.
D. The earliest case that we could find fitting this general pattern was filed in November 2015 — and it had as the plaintiff R. Derek Ruddie in Owings Mills, Md. Richart Ruddie was apparently born in Owings Mills, and Derrek (though with two r's) appears to be his middle name; the address given in court documents has been associated with Richart Ruddie in various records. And the monthly payments under the reputation management contract signed by Rescue One Financial are to be made to Ruddie's company at a bank located in Owings Mills.
Dozens of suspicious court cases, with missing defendants, aim at getting web pages taken down or deindexed
[Eugene Volokh and Paul Alan Levy/Washington Post]