Psychiatrist Sues A Bunch Of Redditors For Criticizing His Therapy Services | Spanlish


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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Psychiatrist Sues A Bunch Of Redditors For Criticizing His Therapy Services

Update: Redditors are crowdfunding their legal defense via GoFundMe. They are now being represented by Marc Randazza.

For reasons only known to the plaintiff, an American psychiatrist offering unlicensed services in Japan is suing a whole bunch of Redditors for defamation. The underlying reason for this lawsuit is obvious: searches for Dr. Douglas Berger or psychiatrists in Japan tend to return lots of links presumably owned by Dr. Berger, but more prominently, a bunch of warnings from Redditors at Japan-focused subreddits to steer clear of his psychiatric services.

So much is Dr. Berger hated by denizens of Japanese-oriented subreddits that one subreddit has even made an annual tradition of warning Americans in Japan (or looking to relocate there) away from Berger. This post also notes Berger himself has tried to make negative posts disappear from Reddit, sometimes with the assistance of reputation management firms.

It appears none of this has worked. Dr. Berger -- living and working in Japan -- has filed a defamation suit in Florida. This doesn't make much sense, but I assume the court will sort out jurisdiction once the case gets underway. So far, there's nothing more on the docket than Berger's first and second complaint, the latter stripping out Microsoft and Google as defendants to focus solely on Reddit and Redditors. Berger at least focuses his lawsuit on the Doe Redditors, naming Reddit as a party solely for the purpose of obtaining identifying info. As his filing [PDF] states, he makes no assertions of liability as to Reddit.

That being said, there's a lot not to like about this lawsuit. There seems to be plenty of critical opinions listed but very little actual defamation. Some statements could be construed to have crossed that line, but for the most part, we're dealing with statements of opinion which cannot be treated as defamatory, no matter how negative they are.

Here are some of the many, many statements Dr. Berger would like to see sued into nonexistence [with my commentary in brackets]:

[t]he false and defamatory statements about Plaintiff Berger include but are not limited to the following:

that he is a 'fucking maniac' [opinion]
he is a 'piece of shit' [opinion]
'gives patients the creeps' [opinion]
that 'he is not a medical professional' [Depends on the definition. He is not licensed in Japan but is licensed in the States.]
'he was disinterested in patients' [opinion]
'incompetent in actually giving therapy' [opinion -- and a layman's opinion at that]
that he overprescribes drugs [questionable, but still looks like an uninformed opinion, not an assertion of fact]
that he 'was always distracted on the computer while with a patient' [even if an assertion of fact, still not defamatory]
that he said sexist comments to a patient' that he told a female patient she will 'be basically worthless after [she] lost her looks' [this is borderline, but truth is an absolute defense, so if it can be shown that it happened…]
he misdiagnoses patients [borderline]
harasses patients online [this can be likely be proven one way or another if true]
takes advantage of patients [opinion]
scams patients [borderline]
that he is a 'scam artist with a doctorate' [borderline, but closer to opinion than the previous one]
that he is 'incompetent or negligent in both' (referring to [Dr. Douglas Berger's] mental health services) [possibly defamatory]
that he is unstable [opinion]
he bilks clients out of their money for services that do not meet even the most basic professional standards [borderline]
he uses Paypal to avoid paying taxes [leans towards defamatory]
he is 'deeply unprofessional, insulting and derogatory' [opinion]
he is a 'cast-iron racist' [borderline, likely can't be proven or disproven]
that he is a charlatan [opinion]
that another mental health service provider gets a lot of his angry ex-clients [possibly defamatory if false, but would possibly have to prove person knew this wasn't true when it was posted]
that he is pushy [opinion]
that he is manipulative [opinion]
and that he disrespects clients and makes them feel like it is their fault they are depressed or stressed [opinion].

For the most part, we're dealing with opinion. The borderline cases might make the lawsuit a worthwhile pursuit for Berger, but a large number of these statements are going to be tossed as they don't clear the bar for defamation.

And some of this will hinge on whether or not the court decides Berger is a limited-purpose public figure for the purposes of this suit. If so, the bar goes even higher and is likely to give Berger very little return on investment. Berger's contributions to several major publications on the subject of providing psychiatric services in Japan are likely to make him a public figure of sorts, even if only in the small arena of ex-pats providing unlicensed services in a foreign country.

Another problematic aspect of this lawsuit is the amount of information Berger wants Reddit to hand over so he can proceed with his suit.

  • Join Date
  • Last login
  • First Name
  • Last Name
  • Email Address
  • Phone Number
  • Email notification address for follow up comments
  • Zip Code
  • Date of Birth
  • Gender
  • Location
  • Originating IP address for each and every connection by each user to your service, including the initial account establishment
  • Remote port number for each user connection
  • The date & time for each session
  • The time zone used by your log file system
  • User agent detail of the user's computing devices for each session
  • Any other such information available that includes basic subscriber information and non-content records about the user.

Hopefully Reddit will fight this demand for info, pushing back on the request until the judge narrows the list down to those who have made arguably defamatory statements (and limits the scope of what can be compelled from Reddit). The court should also be hesitant to grant unmasking requests like these prior to weighing the suit's validity. Online anonymity -- especially that related to public commentary on issues of public interest -- should be given as much protection as possible, no matter how badly a plaintiff might want to clean up his search results.

Then there's the question of jurisdiction. The only connection to Florida is the existence of property owned by Dr. Berger. He has no residence there, nor does he provide services in Florida. Reddit -- a non-party for all intents and purposes -- is headquartered in San Francisco. It's not like Berger is dodging an anti-SLAPP law by filing in Florida as opposed to California -- something his legal representation should be aware of. It may be Berger simply had no idea where to file it and picked a place nominally linked to him, rather than for some legal advantage not present in California.

While there may be some actionable statements in the Reddit-Berger dogpile, a majority of the comments are critical opinions. The problem is the suit targets everything Berger doesn't like, rather than just the edge cases where defamation may have occurred. Given his past attempts to silence critical Redditors, this looks like an escalation meant to deter future negative comments, rather than seek retribution for the few times he may have been legally wronged. The problem with this tactic is it so very rarely works. If Berger doesn't like the current state of Reddit, he's going to find it much more unbearable once the backlash begins. Reputation management begins at home -- or rather, at the office. Unless all of these Redditors are lying, Berger's psychiatric offerings seem to have been consistently subpar. Seems like the smarter move would have been providing better service rather than seeking to silence unhappy patients after the fact.

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