NY dentist sues Yelp over bad reviews

2008 08 29 15 39 44 564 Justice Scale 70

A Manhattan cosmetic dentist is suing Yelp over bad reviews, claiming the site lists only defamatory reviews and filters out positive ones.

The complaint, filed July 25 in Manhattan Supreme Court by Mal Braverman, DMD, states that the negative reviews have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars while boosting Yelp's website traffic. The suit seeks $400,000 in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages.

Yelp is accused of libel and slander for publishing negative reviews, causing "great financial and personal harm" to Dr. Braverman by containing material that is "false, intentionally misleading, and defamatory," according to the complaint.

Dr. Braverman also claims that the site recommends other dentists who are Yelp advertisers.

Mal Braverman, DMD.Mal Braverman, DMD.
Mal Braverman, DMD.

A check of the site revealed four negative reviews of Dr. Braverman, in which he responded with apologies if there were a misunderstanding. Good reviews appear to be left up for only a day or two before they are "filtered" to a link near the bottom of the page."

Dr. Braverman -- a co-founder and past president of the New York chapter of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and a fellow of the International Academy of Dental-Facial Esthetics -- has 19 positive reviews, but they're not easy to see. To find them, you have to click on a faint ("19 Filtered") link. Additionally, the page shows links for five of Dr. Braverman's competitors who are listed under a "Best of Yelp New York cosmetic dentists" red banner.

"What they're doing is absolutely despicable," Dr. Braverman told DrBicuspid.com. "It's all for the aggrandizement of their business, period. It's just to publish slanderous, defamatory reviews and censure all the good ones."

Yelp did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Similar cases unsuccessful

Dental practitioners who have tried to combat negative comments posted online have often been unsuccessful. In 2011, a California dentist who filed a defamation case over negative reviews on Yelp.com had to pay $80,000 in attorney fees to a young patient's parents, whom she sued. A California appeals court supported Yelp reviews in 2010.

And a class-action lawsuit was filed in 2011 against a New York dentist who required patients to agree not to post negative comments about her online before she would treat them.

Dr. Braverman, who advertises on Google, said the sites work in concert because the more reviews he garners, the more it pushes Yelp to the top of Google's search list, creating a vicious circle.

“It's my livelihood and my hard-earned reputation that's getting smeared unfairly.”
— Mal Braverman, DMD

"The way they do it is to put good reviews up for one day, then filter them so they still get credit for all the traffic," he explained.

The ethical way to post reviews, which is the system Dr. Braverman said other sites use, allows you to counter bad reviews by asking people to write positive ones.

"Then the public can judge between a moron who gives you a bad review on one experience and may have an agenda," he said.

Yelp told him that they post the bad reviews because it's being honest to the public. "That's bull crap," Dr. Braverman countered.

Yelp's tactics amount to censorship, Dr. Braverman asserted.

"It's hurting businesses to raise their own traffic and their own business," he said. "They should be in jail for that."

Yelp's algorithm adds insult to injury, Dr. Braverman said. "They're not only getting higher on Google's list, but they're getting more traffic for their customers who then will invest more money to stay on Yelp because they're getting results. But they're getting results literally at my expense, at expense of my business and marketing. It's extortion."

Removing bad reviews

Dr. Braverman said that Yelp salesman told him the site will take down bad reviews, but he tried that, to no avail.

"The salesmen have gotten smart because there was a class-action suit about this, so they say we can't do anything about bad reviews now," he said.

Yelp makes more money by posting his reviews than it would if he advertised with them, Dr. Braverman said.

"If I join Yelp, it's $300 a month, and I'm worth a lot more to them than that by sending all my traffic from Google to raise their site up, and so are all the other people they're doing it to."

Dr. Braverman recently repaired a small crack in a patient's porcelain veneers, and she was very happy with the work, he said.

"So I asked her if she would be willing to write a review, and she said, 'Absolutely' and put it on Yelp even though I didn't specify which site to use," he said. "Her review stayed on one day, then it got filtered, too."

He recalled one woman who wanted teeth whitening, then wrote a negative review accusing him of trying to sell her porcelain veneers. The patient had teeth stained from taking tetracycline, which gets into the bloodstream and discolors teeth from inside, Dr. Braverman explained.

"The only way to treat it is to make a porcelain veneer, and they're expensive. I told her if you've done Bright Smile already you've probably gotten the best results you're going to get," he said. "I told her honestly not to waste her money, and she said I tried to make her feely crappy and sell her porcelain veneers."

Federal statute doesn't apply

Dr. Braverman's attorney, Andrew Risoli, noted this case is not covered by a federal statute that protects Internet sites from lawsuits.

"Of course people go to Google, which refers them to Yelp, which purges Dr. Braverman's favorable reviews," he told DrBicuspid.com.

Dr. Braverman's practice has been losing $200,000 a year since 2010, according to Risoli. "Yelp's procedures are faulty, and they've harmed him and caused him injury," he said.

Dr. Braverman said Google shares the blame because it allows Yelp's system to drive traffic.

"With all humility, my work is fantastic," Dr. Braverman said. "To suffer this kind of unfairness really hurts my income, in addition to being despicable. It's my livelihood and my hard-earned reputation that's getting smeared unfairly, and it's not even representative."

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