First Amendment attorneys in Washington, D.C., have taken up the case of a man being sued by a San Francisco plastic surgeon for posting negative comments about her online.
The name of the surgeon — Usha Rajagopal — might sound familiar. Last year, SF Weekly published a feature about her ascent in Google rankings with the help of search engine expert Tracy Rosecrans [“Doctoring the Web,” Ashley Harrell, 9/15/10]. Rosecrans' distinct screen name — trosecra — appears Internetwide attached to gushing reviews of Rajagopal that Rosecrans denied she wrote. The story also detailed how Rajagopal received probation from the Medical Board of California after a patient slipped into a coma during liposuction and later died.
Rajagopal retains her medical license, and is still the first Google hit for “San Francisco” and “plastic surgeon.” And apparently, she's still concerned about her online reputation. In October, she filed a lawsuit against Cannoli38 and other posters who criticized her on Google Maps. Although Cannoli38's comment has since been removed, it appears in a memorandum of support filed by defense attorneys. “She is responsible for putting a woman into a vegetative state who later died,” Cannoli38 wrote, citing the Weekly article. “Rajagopal is a danger who shouldn't be allowed to have a medical license.”
When Cannoli38 found out Rajagopal had subpoenaed Google to obtain his identity, he contacted attorneys from the Public Citizen Litigation Group and the American Civil Liberties Union. For them, the case held the possibility for setting a legal precedent — not in California, but in Virginia. Rajagopal filed her suit there, according to Cannoli38's attorney, Michael Page, to avoid a California SLAPP statute that penalizes lawsuits attempting to silence criticism that is in the public interest. Page calls Rajagopal's lawsuit a baseless attempt to get people to remove their posts.
Rajagopal didn't return SF Weekly's calls for the first story or this one, but her lawyer, Domingo Rivera, denies that the lawsuit is frivolous. Although he offered no clear explanation for the suit being filed in Virginia, he says he believes other doctors have conspired to damage Rajagopal with an online smear campaign. He also pointed out that one post accusing his client of hiring Rosecrans to create fake reviews is factually inaccurate. He says patients wrote reviews for the doctor, who gave them to Rosecrans, who posted them with her account. It's a strange explanation, considering Rosecrans originally denied posting the reviews to SF Weekly.
Page and his lawyers have filed a motion to quash Rajagopal's subpoena for Cannoli38's identity and to ask for sanctions on Rajagopal and her lawyer. Cannoli38 — who is not a doctor and is not from Virginia — had initially taken down his review. He's considering putting it back up.