August 13, 2019 / 7:59 PM / 4 months ago

Accused of soliciting deceptive online reviews, Pittsburgh law firm settles

(Reuters) - A couple months back, I told you about a novel suit by a former client of the Pittsburgh employment law firm Kraemer Manes & Associates. Tabatha Wolfe alleged that after she was sexually assaulted at work, she went online to look for a law firm to represent her. Based on Kraemer Manes’ stellar reviews on Facebook and Google, Wolfe said, she signed a retainer agreement with the firm. Wolfe soon soured on Kraemer Manes, though. In a 2018 complaint in the Alleghany County Court of Common Pleas, she claimed the law firm committed malpractice by missing the deadline for her potential harassment claim.

More intriguingly, Wolfe also alleged that Kraemer Manes defrauded her and other clients because many of the firm’s glowing reviews – those posts that allegedly persuaded Wolfe to hire Kraemer Manes in the first place – were fakes. Wolfe’s new lawyers, Christine Elzer of the Elzer Law Firm and Gregory Paul of Morgan & Paul, detailed in a prospective class action complaint how Kraemer Manes lawyers allegedly directed non-lawyer employees to solicit their friends and relatives to post five-star reviews of the firm. The law firm allegedly rewarded employees who managed to secure favorable reviews with paid time off.

Kraemer Manes settled the case last week. In a statement on the settlement, Wolfe counsel Elzer and Paul said the firm and its name partners promised not to solicit online reviews from anyone without a genuine business relationship with them; not to solicit online reviews by offering paid time off or any other inducement and not to threaten to sue any client or former client for posting a bad review. The law firm and name partners also agreed to instruct all firm employees to delete their reviews, unless they were clients as well as employees, and to ask their friends and relatives to delete reviews as well.

To be clear, Kraemer Manes continues to deny that it did anything wrong, as Elzer and Paul acknowledged in their statement about the settlement. (The firm did concede that it “rewarded its employees on limited occasions when positive reviews or ratings (were) posted by members of the public.”) In Kraemer Manes’ last filing in the Wolfe case, an answer to Wolfe’s complaint, the firm repeatedly said that it never asked anyone to post a deceptive review. All of the reviews, it said, reflected honest assessments of the firm.

“Every single review and rating appears to be the honest opinion of the individual who voluntarily posted it,” the firm said. “Even if there were a false review, KM&A categorically never asked any individual to lie or post anything deceptive.”

I emailed Kraemer Manes’ counsel in the Wolfe case, Michael Betts, but didn’t hear back. I left a phone message for name partner David Manes but he didn’t call me. The firm’s receptionist said that name partner Michael Kraemer, who was named as a defendant in Wolfe’s suit, no longer works at Kraemer Manes. No one from the firm responded to a phone message I left with the firm’s receptionist, requesting comment on the Wolfe settlement.

But Elzer and Paul had plenty to say in a phone interview about the implications of the settlement. (They declined to comment on any monetary recovery for their client.) The key consequence of Wolfe’s case, they said, is that law firm clients can use consumer fraud and civil racketeering laws to address deceptive marketing. When I wrote about Wolfe’s case in May, I highlighted Kraemer Manes’ argument that law firms are not subject to state consumer protection laws for any action related to the practice of law. Only the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the firm said, can discipline lawyers for marketing their legal services.

The firm also argued that Wolfe – and, by extension, any other client who was allegedly misled by Kraemer Manes’ online reviews – had no cause of action for fraud because she couldn’t show she was injured as a direct result of the firm’s marketing.

Elzer and Paul said that if those theories had been correct, Allegheny County Judge Christine Ward could have dismissed Wolfe’s case. But in a one-paragraph order on May 29, the judge denied Kraemer Manes’ motion to toss the suit.

Judge Ward did not write an opinion explaining her reasoning, so her ruling is of limited precedential value, Elzer said. But plaintiffs in future cases alleging deceptive law firm marketing can point to the result in the Wolfe suit, Elzer added, and can look to the briefs that persuaded the judge to allow the case to move forward.

“It’s a big deal,” Paul said, to establish that law firm marketing is covered by anti-fraud laws.

Of course, not all law firm reviews from people other than clients will give rise to claims of fraud, said Elzer and Paul. In its answer to Wolfe’s complaint, for instance, Kraemer Manes tried to turn the tables on Wolfe lawyer Elzer, asserting that four of her seven reviews on Google were from non-clients. “If non-client reviews are inherently false, misleading, deceptive, or fraudulent to the public and potential clients, Ms. Elzer is guilty of the same legal violations of which plaintiff accuses KM&A,” Kraemer Manes asserted.

But as Elzer and Paul pointed out in Wolfe’s response and in our interview, Elzer didn’t solicit anyone to write favorable reviews and didn’t reward anyone for procuring them. (One of the reviews was from a prospective client who heaped praise on Elzer for turning down his case - and helping him find a different lawyer - because she said she didn’t have the right expertise.)

“That review was totally fair,” Elzer told me. “I didn’t ask anyone to write it.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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