San Francisco Dentist Latest To Sue Yelp For 'Shakedown Scheme'

Ppl love us on yelp.jpg
Correction: People love to sue us on yelp.
A San Francisco dentist has joined the parade of litigants targeting Yelp, filing suit in San Francisco court for extortion in a "shakedown scheme" and conspiracy to injure her business and reputation.

Dr. Gelareh Rahbar, a dentist with a practice on Kearny Street whom one Yelper referred to as a torturer, filed a suit in San Francisco Superior Court on April 29. The suit states that the web review site extorted her for "protection" from bad reviews, and then denied her the protection when she sued two Yelpers for "defamatory" reviews. She is suing Yelp for compensatory and punitive damages.

It's the latest in a batch of similar lawsuits against the San Francisco-based site SF Weekly wrote about in a 2009 cover story. The complaints apparently spurred Yelp to change its policies last month: The site no longer allows businesses to pay to prominently display a "sponsored review" on their Yelp pages, and now allows users to see the reviews filtered by the mysterious algorithm that Yelp founders say censors untrustworthy reviews.
  The most current suit states that Rahbar was contacted by Yelp in 2007 to pay $250 in order to display a favorite review as a "sponsored review" and stop other dentists from advertising on her page -- both practices that Yelp has been candid about in the past.

But Rahbar alleges that two "false and defamatory reviews" were subsequently  posted and Yelp once again contacted her and "demanded more money or the negative and false reviews would become prominent and hurt her business."

Yelp is feeling the wrath of dentist scorned...
The suit further alleges that the customer service representative would only talk by phone, not by e-mail, and told the dentist that "by paying more each month Yelp would push down or even remove the negative reviews."

Rahbar claims that her monthly revenue dropped from $120,000 to $52,000 after negative reviews on Yelp claimed "she had committed dental malpractice, falsely claimed that she regularly performed unnecessary procedures merely to obtain more money from a patient and falsely claimed that her service had 'deteriorated and she cared more about squeezing...the most out of your insurance than you as a patient.'" Rahbar defaulted on the loan that was financing her practice.

Rahbar agreed to start paying Yelp $550 a month: "Within days, the attacks stopped ... the negative reviews were removed" and her business went back to normal, the suit states. At the same time, Rahbar filed lawsuits against two Yelpers who'd left the "defamatory" posts -- which, she says, triggered Yelp reps e-mailing her that she would no longer be permitted to advertise on the site: "It's Yelp's belief that it is not in our best interest to promote a business that is actively suing members of the Yelp community." 

The suit is written with language that makes Yelp sound more like the neighborhood mafiosi than a website: "Yelp is not only providing 'protection' for small businesses attacked on its website for a significant monthly fee, but it is protecting the source and authorship of the false and defamatory attack posts and comments by pulling its protection of the business when the truth is pursued."

Still, Rahbar seems to be doing okay without paying the site. As of Thursday, her Yelp page showed her batting four out of five stars.  

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