In late 2015, a Georgia dentist who had lost his license sued an anonymous YouTube user for defamation.
After an intervention by Public Citizen, the user will remain anonymous, while the dentist will pay $12,000 in attorneys’ fees.
The Georgia State Board of Dentistry revoked the license of Gordon Trent Austin after he pled guilty to six counts of Medicare fraud pursuant to a 2009 indictment.
The indictment also said that Austin beat several patients, including children.
The assault charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. “When patients moaned, or even cried out, during the procedures, loudly enough to be heard by other patients in the waiting room, Austin would tell the patient to stop making noise and, if the patient failed to obey his command, the claim was that Austin would then strike them with a dental instrument to reinforce the command,” Public Citizen attorney Paul Levy said in court papers.
An Atlanta-area television station broadcast a two-part investigation about Austin that same year.
The TV investigation was uploaded to YouTube by an anonymous user called “gordonaustinsacoward.”
In 2015, Austin filed a lawsuit seeking to sue the YouTube user for defamation, sending a subpoena to Google to get the user’s identity. “It is not at all clear why Austin suddenly revived his interest in the adverse story,” wrote Levy in a blog post explaining his organization’s decision to intervene in the case.
Public Citizen filed a motion to quash the subpoena in which Levy argued that Austin had no defamation case and that in any case, the statute of limitations had elapsed. A hearing was scheduled to take place this Tuesday in San Jose, but last week, Austin’s lawyer agreed to drop the lawsuit and pay $12,000 in attorneys’ fees to Public Citizen.
It isn’t clear whether the fees will be paid by Austin, his lawyer, or some combination of the two.
The law in California was already clear on the issue of when an anonymous Internet poster can be outed, but the fee payment is significant, said Levy. “We actually can’t find any cases in which fees were awarded for baseless subpoenas,” Levy told Ars. “We wanted to establish the proposition that fees can be awarded and that the attorneys who sign these out-of-state subpoenas are at some risk.”
Austin’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment about the case.
This isn’t the first time Levy has tangled in court with a rogue dentist.
In 2013, Public Citizen challenged Stacy Makhnevich, who compelled patients to sign a contract in which she claimed copyright to any online reviews they wrote. That case was resolved when a judge awarded Levy $4,766 in fees. Makhnevich and her practice disappeared after the ruling, and even her own lawyers were unable to contact her.
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