A West Ashley psychiatrist was so offended by a poor online review that he has sued the anonymous critic and demanded that Google unmask the user's identity.
What did the review say? Nothing.
It simply gave Dr. Mark Beale one out of five stars — a judgment that Beale said has caused him "extreme and constant distress."
Beale insisted that it could not have come from an actual patient, making it false and libelous. His lawsuit noted that he was highly regarded on other websites. He had enjoyed 4½ stars on the popular WebMD.com.
"It’s a mystery," Beale said in a brief interview. "The one-star review is out of sync with the feedback I get from my patients. ... So we decided to look into it."
His defamation claim is shaping up as a battle over First Amendment rights in an age of internet anonymity. The suit against "John Doe" was filed in March in Charleston County court, but it ratcheted up this month as Google objected to Beale's attempts to expose what he dubbed a “spoofer.”
Beale wants Doe to pay damages and Google to take down the rating and reveal the user. But Google doesn't want to. At least, not yet.
Beale's attorney, Steven Abrams of Mount Pleasant, said he has handled several similar cases, and companies like Google, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon typically hand over identifying information of anonymous users.
“Why Google fought this case, I have no earthly idea,” Abrams said. “There’s not really a lot of case law (in South Carolina) ... on these types of cases because they don’t usually result in a fight.”
Online reviews have prompted such courtroom action in other states, including in California, where a Yelp user was sued over a one-star rating of a law firm. Supported by other websites such as Google and major newspapers, Yelp has asked the state's Supreme Court to overturn an order to take it down.
Beale said he has practiced at Charleston Psychiatric Associates on St. Andrews Boulevard for 16 years, building a good reputation among locals.
But in October, a user with the suspected pseudonym "Richard Hill" clicked the first star under an entry for Beale’s office on Google Maps. It was Beale’s first rating on Google.
Beale said he hasn't lost any patients since the rating was posted, but he hasn't gained any either.
His lawsuit, though, came with some adverse side effects. Since word of it became public, reviewers have given him more one-star ratings, including at least 11 such assessments on Google by Friday. Someone on HealthGrades.com criticized the psychiatrist's complaint of "extreme and constant distress."
"Dr. Beale is supposed to be an expert in emotions and reactions," wrote the poster, proclaiming to hail from Southern California. "I'd say that I would not have any confidence in his ability to help anyone else with their emotions and reactions in life."
The original Google reviewer likely hails from Newport News, Va., the suit stated. Beale noted in an affidavit that the rating came within days of a disagreement with a family member over the care of his aging mother, a retired judge in Newport News.
He enlisted Charleston media and internet publisher Andy Brack, who puts out the Statehouse Report and Charleston Currents. In an affidavit, Brack opined on Beale’s behalf that one star is akin to saying, “I hate it,” as opposed to the “I love it” of five stars.
“Any reasonable person looking at the one-star rating,” Brack wrote, “would likely think of him and the business in a negative manner and might make a decision to not use his medical service.”
Google, though, has objected to a subpoena from Abrams that seeks the user's identifying data.
Hayley Berlin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer hired by the company, told Stevens in a letter that laws in the company’s home state of California require that courts carefully weigh a person’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously with the concerns of those targeted by such speech.
“Google does not require users to provide their real names ... to leave a business review,” Berlin wrote. “Thus, the conclusion that the review must be 'implicitly false' because (Beale) has never treated a patient by the name of Richard Hill is fundamentally flawed."
But Abrams said commercial speech related to someone's livelihood isn't afforded the same constitutional protections as political opinion that might draw government officials' retribution.
"There's potential that someone's competitor can hide under the cloak of anonymity to do damage," he said, "without any sort of negative consequence for their hate speech."