“It was horrible.”
For New York City commercial litigator Donald J. Tobias, those three words have been the bane of his existence.
Some time earlier this year, a Google user named “Mia Arce” posted those words as a review of his boutique legal practice in Manhattan. The three-word review accompanies a one-star rating that Google users can find just by searching Mr. Tobias’s name.
The lawyer says he’s never heard of a person by that name and fears the three-word review is tarnishing his professional reputation. After failing to get Google to remove the review, Mr. Tobias is now petitioning a New York judge to identify the author.
The Google user “has, with these three explosively damaging and defamatory words, imputed some unspecified act of professional unfitness, misbehavior or worse to the Petitioner,” Mr. Tobias wrote in court papers filed last week.
In June, before taking legal action, Mr. Tobias wrote letters to Google’s legal department explaining his predicament. He said he suspected whoever had written the review might have been responding to a tragic story from November 2013 about a Cornell University professor named Donald J. Tobias who reportedly threw himself in front of a subway train.
“I am an innocent victim of a purported but highly damaging ‘review’ that was posted, in all probability by mistake, by someone that I do not know and with whom I have had no relationship of any kind,” Mr. Tobias told Google.
Google responded each time with a boilerplate rejection. “At this time, Google has decided not to take action on your request,” the company wrote back.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment on the litigation.
Mr. Tobias suspected the reviewer could be a New York woman with the same name as the Google reviewer, according to his petition. But when he made contact with that woman, she “unequivocally denied” posting the “it was horrible” review, he told the court.
UCLA law professor and First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh said that even if Mr. Tobias succeeds in getting Google to turn over the identity of the reviewer, he doesn’t think the lawyer has a plausible libel claim.
Mr. Volokh said he sympathizes with Mr. Tobias but said the phrase “it was horrible” falls in the camp of statements that are entirely opinion and “so devoid of fact” that they can’t be viewed as libelous.
Something even slightly more concrete, like “this person cheated me,” could stand a chance, Mr. Volokh told Law Blog, but “‘it was horrible’…is not enough without specific allegations.”
Mr. Tobias, who said he’s practiced law for 40 years, vowed to press on with his grievance.
“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” he told Law Blog by phone on Monday. “There should be some recourse…You can’t go around defaming people.”