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Baltimore County doctor sues client over online review

A Baltimore County doctor is suing a client who posted a negative review online after a visit to his clinic, alleging her statements were defamatory and have resulted in a significant drop in revenue for his business.

It all began when Tammie J. Monaco, of Sparks, went to Carr Medical Specialities LLC in Lutherville for a massage and facial spa treatment. For various reasons she walked out without getting one, and she sent Dr. Kevin L. Carr, the owner of the practice, an email expressing her dissatisfaction. She told him she was going to share her experience online through social media.

In a review posted on Yelp.com, Monaco described the practice as “unprofessional,” the clinic’s bathroom as “filthy” and Carr as a “scam artist.”

At a hearing Thursday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Judge Sherrie R. Bailey granted Carr’s request for a temporary restraining order forcing Monaco to remove all online posts related to Carr and his practice and preventing her from posting anything else about him or the clinic.

Christopher Moylan. (File Photo)

Christopher Moylan. (File Photo)

“This is a doctor’s skin care clinic — this isn’t the Pentagon Papers that can affect U.S. combat troops in the field,” said Moylan, of The Moylan Law Firm in Towson.

Mark Graber, a constitutional law professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law who is not involved with the case, was also surprised by the reach of the injunction.

“That is potential prior restraint,” he said. Graber also cited the Pentagon Papers case, referencing the standard former Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. included in his opinion. That standard says publication must “inevitably, directly, and immediately cause the occurrence of an event kindred to imperiling the safety of a transport already at sea” in order to warrant this type of injunction.

‘Malicious intent’

The lawsuit, filed May 6, recounts Monaco’s April 1 visit to Carr’s clinic, during which she arrived more than 20 minutes late and agreed to an abbreviated appointment, but then “stormed out” of a treatment room to complain about having to wait. According to the suit, an employee offered to stay late to accommodate her, but Monaco left the clinic instead.

After complaining about her visit in the email, Monaco then posted about her “horrific experience” on Yelp. The lawsuit alleges Monaco fabricated parts of this Yelp review, including that an employee told her she had to wait because the clinic was “understaffed” and that Carr “didn’t show up for work” that day.

Other crucial facts of her visit were left out of the review, the complaint states, including that she had rescheduled an appointment at the last minute, was more than 20 minutes late, and was refunded the $40 she spent.

“In addition to fabricating false facts, Ms. Monaco’s omission of material facts … shows that her statements are not mere opinion or error, but rather a conscious effort to damage Plaintiffs by creating the false impression that Carr Medical made her wait unnecessarily or cut her time short without her consent, and was incompetent,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks $750,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

Proof of harm

In the motion for a temporary restraining order, Carr submitted a screenshot of analytics for his clinic’s website which he said demonstrated a drop-off in visitors to the site since the April 1 review was posted.

An affidavit signed by Carr also states that he learned from patients that most clients who visited Carr Medical’s website — and subsequently made appointments at the clinic — were directed there from Yelp.

“The decline in popularity of Plaintiffs’ website and medical practice is a direct result of Ms. Monaco’s defamatory statements,” the motion alleges. “There is no other reason that would explain the decline.”

Because the clinic has only been open for a year and a half, the motion claims, the business is in a particularly “crucial and delicate phase” of development that Monaco’s review could significantly impair. The review — still visible Thursday afternoon — is one of only two on the clinic’s Yelp page.

“The drop in the number of visitors to the website and clinic represents an immediate, substantial and irreparable harm for what was a growing medical practice,” the motion states.

Although many of the claims in the Yelp review are “he said, she said” points, Graber said grounds for a defamation suit exist as long as the doctor is disputing statements of fact, not opinion.

“As long as you have two things, falsity and fault, there’s a lawsuit,” Graber said. “By falsity, I mean there must be a false statement — it can’t be, ‘I don’t think Doctor X has a winning personality.’”

The issue of how far the right to free speech extends online is still in flux, Graber added.

“Right now there really isn’t a solid precedent,” he said. “The constitutional law of the Internet is very unsettled at the moment.”

The case is Kevin L. Carr, et al. v. Tammie J. Monaco, 03-C-15-004927.


About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.