NEW ALBANY — A Southern Indiana attorney has filed a defamation lawsuit over a negative business review posted online which mentions the attorney's children.
New Albany attorney Matthew Lemme, along with Lemme Law Offices, LLC, filed the civil suit Dec. 20 in Floyd County Superior Court No. 1 against Raven J. Browning, after she posted a Google review about an experience that her boyfriend had with the attorney and his law firm.
The one-star review states in part that Lemme was hired in July to represent Browning's boyfriend in a DUI case, and that the attorney was paid a $750 flat rate for representation. Browning's post states that Lemme did not update the client on the case and that the attorney withdrew after the client opted to not take a plea deal.
"He advised to take the plea, then we asked if it were you or your kid what would you say ... he said I would not do that ... I would fight it. Then dropped us," Browning's review states.
Online court records show that the DUI case is still pending in Floyd County Superior Court No. 2, and that Lemme entered a motion to withdraw on Nov. 2, which was granted by the court Nov. 8. Browning said her boyfriend has hired another attorney.
She said in a phone interview Monday that after her boyfriend took what she said he believed to be the attorney's advice to fight the charges, that Lemme withdrew and, after sending a letter to the client stating so, had not returned phone calls.
Lemme, who is represented by New Albany attorney Mark Tawfik in the lawsuit, said in a phone interview Monday that Browning is not his client.
"I never represented Ms. Browning, I never had a conversation with Ms. Browning, never received a fee from Ms. Browning," he said. "And I was absolutely shocked to see some mention of my kid, even in a general sense.
"People make negative reviews about ... all kinds of businesses and all kinds of businesses have to put up with a certain amount of that. But I think any business is allowed to say their kids are off limits."
Browning said she believes this portion of the lawsuit is the oddest part, because asking about what he would do or how he would advise his children if he was in the same position had been a hypothetical question.
"I didn't know that he had kids [and] it didn't matter if he had kids or not with the phrasing of that question — if it were you or your kids, how would you advise," she said. "It's just something one might say to get the best possible service and that's 's what it meant."
She said she had not been contacted to remove the post, and was surprised to get notification of the lawsuit. She said Lemme could have responded to the post itself online.
"I feel like it's ridiculous," Browning said. "I feel like he could have put a rebuttal on there himself ... something along the lines of 'I'm so sorry you were dissatisfied with my services, maybe there was a misunderstanding, please call me.'
"He had a lot of choices besides just suing me."
When asked directly if he had requested that the post be removed, Lemme said he wanted to let the lawsuit speak for itself.
"The damages incurred by both the plaintiffs [Lemme and his law office]are substantial and continuing as the publication is still present, is seen and able to be seen by new people each day," the complaint reads, in part. It states that Lemme has "demanded that the defendant cease this communication and remove its publication, which the defendant has failed and refused to do so."
As of press time, the post was still visible online.
The complaint requests unspecified monetary damages, as well as injunctive relief to prevent the continued publication of the review.
"The continued publication of the defamatory statements and resulting damages endures and accrues daily," the complaint states.
Lemme said that even if Browning had been a direct client of his making such a statement, attorney-client confidentiality would have prevented him from making such a rebuttal publicly.
"Even if [a client] said things that were true, the attorney can't really respond without betraying confidence," he said. "I'm saying that in every case and every attorney."
But part of bringing a defamation suit means he contends the poster's comments are untrue. Under Indiana law, to successfully sue for defamation requires that a person made a false statement of fact, acted negligently or with malice which caused the plaintiff material harm.
The complaint also states that the post claims criminal conduct by the attorney, his office and children, and as such constitutes both defamation and defamation per se.
The Floyd County case is not the first in the state to address complaints of defamation in the digital age. A woman was awarded $6,000 in damages in Scott Superior Small Claims Court in 2018 after a court reversed a previous decision over a Facebook post made by a woman who had lived with her son.
Several days after the woman's son had passed away, the defendant had made a Facebook post reporting his truck stolen and that had mother "had everything to do with it and that's facts,'" according to a February 2018 summary in the Indiana Lawyer.
"There are new areas of law," Lemme said Monday. "Now, anyone in a moment's notice with their cell phone in their hand can publish a statement about someone — nice, not nice, true, not true — and it's not just published for the moment; it's published forever.
"And people need to understand there are consequences when they do those things."
Browning said she feels that her free speech rights are being squashed and that "everything I wrote is true," she said. "I feel bullied in this situation ... and I can't believe it is this far; it's just so extreme for a bad Google review."
Browning is represented by attorney Steve Voelker. The defendant and counsel have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in Floyd County Superior Court No. 1, stating that the complaint did not include the nature of the original post. A hearing on this motion is set for 10 a.m. March 14.