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My Colleague Has Defamed Me Online: What Can I Do?

Dermatology TimesDermatology Times, April 2024 (Vol. 45. No. 04)
Volume 45
Issue 04

What are your rights in the instance a colleague defames you online or on social media? David Goldberg, MD, JD, shares legal advice in our April issue.

Attorneys or lawyers are advising clients in defamation cases
kamiphotos/Adobe Stock

“Dr Derm” is a successful dermatologist who is also very internet savvy. He tinkers with his own website and finds that many patients come to his office not only because of his quality of care but also because of his presence on the internet. In fact, he spends 10% of his annual gross earnings on marketing, much of which is internet based. He often finds himself telling his peers how wonderful internet marketing is, until one day he finds out that a disgruntled fellow dermatologist has defamed his reputation on the web. This physician/patient not only accused him of poor medical practice but also videotaped him giving a politically motivated speech that the patient/dermatologist did not agree with. The video and comments have been placed on YouTube and Instagram by the vindictive physician; it has gone viral and has been seen by thousands. Dr Derm is concerned this malicious act may ruin his career. The wonders of the internet now have become the curse of the internet. He decides to fight back and has hundreds of fake positive reviews about him placed on a variety of social media sites. He gets a sense of pleasure in doing this. But is it legal?

Unfortunately, because of privacy laws, when a disgruntled patient places a scathing comment on a website, a physician has little recourse. This issue, of course, is not unique to physicians. There are known instances of dentists being accused online, by their competitors, of being inappropriate conduct. Similarly, laudatory online comments can be written by the physicians themselves.

In general, websites acting as platforms for outside commentary are not liable for defamation suits. Libel and slander laws are designed to protect the First Amendment rights of all Americans. Furthermore, in the unlikely event that Dr Derm can win such a lawsuit, he will have to show it resulted in economic damage. A more likely successful course would be to file ethics complaints against his fellow dermatologist through organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology. Without this, Dr Derm is in no position to stop his peer—or any patient—from posting the negative online comments.

But what about Dr Derm’s attempt to fight back with the fake positive comments?

Although this area of case law is still evolving, there is precedent from New York that should be of concern to Dr Derm. An investigation by the Office of the New York State Attorney General into Dr Mark Mohrmann found that he and his wife worked to suppress his negative online reviews while artificially inflating positive reviews of his practice on numerous websites. New York stated that fake online reviews are deceptive and are a violation of the state’s business laws. As a result of such a violation, Dr Mohrmann was required to take down all the fake positive online reviews and pay a fine of $100,000.1

The state said that Dr Mohrmann deceived patients through a secret campaign to remove negative reviews and unfairly obtain positive reviews to boost his practice. “These actions are illegal and unacceptable, particularly for critical services like medical care,” the attorney general wrote. Dr Mohrmann and his wife used several techniques to prevent prospective patients from seeing negative reviews posted by dissatisfied patients. On some platforms, they would falsely flag negative reviews for removal for violating the platforms’ policies prohibiting inappropriate conduct. In other cases, Dr Mohrmann would have his office contact patients who left negative reviews and offer to refund their co-pay or other costs in exchange for removing the bad review. To prevent some patients from even having the opportunity to leave a negative review on a site such as Zocdoc, Dr Mohrmann would falsely indicate that the patients had not shown up for a scheduled appointment so that ZocDoc would not solicit those patients for reviews. As a result of these efforts, common complaints about Dr Mohrmann, such as failing to listen to patient complaints, surprise charges, poor bedside manner, and poor communication were hidden from prospective patients. New York found such behavior to be illegal.

Dr Derm would have been better off seeking alternative ways of righting the wrong committed by his fellow physician. The attempt to get his pound of flesh by submitting online falsehoods may very well backfire and lead to extensive litigation and fines.

David J. Goldberg, MD, JD, is medical director of Skin Laser and Surgery Specialists of New York and New Jersey; director of cosmetic dermatology and clinical research at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York, New York; and clinical professor of dermatology and past director of Mohs Surgery and Laser Research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, New York.


  1. Attorney General James secures $100,000 from Manhattan doctor who manipulated online reviews. News release. Letitia James: Office of the New York State Attorney General. October 30, 2023. Accessed March 18, 2024. https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2023/attorney-general-james-secures-100000-manhattan-doctor-who-manipulated-online

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