Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is charging a plastic surgery company for wrongly inflating online review scores, bribing, and frightening patients, and claims the activities of the practice did not comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Regulations.
The plastic surgery clinic Allure Esthetic based in Seattle and its owner Dr. Javad Sajan are facing a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. Patients and ex-employees submitted multiple complaints alleging that the practice was bribing and threatening patients to keep them from leaving bad reviews on websites like Google and Yelp, and that patients asked to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) prior to getting treatment forbidding them from posting online comments that can hurt the practice by any means. The practice viewed any rating below 4 stars to be a bad review. Attorney General Ferguson stated these practices wrongly inflated its online evaluations.
Based on the lawsuit, over 10,000 patients signed the NDAs that state legal action will be taken against those posting negative reviews. Patients who published bad reviews were purportedly threatened to delete the ratings because if they do not, they will be sued for monetary. In a number of instances, patients were given bribes for deleting negative comments, such as cash and free treatments. Patients that agreed to the payments or free treatments signed another NDA that stated they would pay $250,000 in damages should they post any more bad reviews. Patients had to pay a $100 consultation fee prior to being informed they need to sign an NDA.
The lawsuit additionally claims employees were instructed to post bogus positive feedback online that contained modified before and after photos that showed their treatments were considerably more successful than they really were. When posting bogus reviews, a VPN was utilized to hide the IP addresses of the computers used. The practice is additionally alleged to have requested patients’ rebates without getting their permission, then held on to the rebates. The practice created hundreds of bogus email accounts to sign up for rebate programs meant for actual patients. As a result, the practice got paid thousands of dollars of fake rebates every month.
The lawsuit states that from 2017 to 2019, because of the NDAs, the patients had to get in touch with the practice before posting online any review under 4 stars as the NDAs require the patients to pay the practice monetary damages for any losses when negative ratings were not deleted. The NDAs additionally mentioned that patients should waive their HIPAA privacy rights, saying patients should permit a reply [to the review] from the practice that contains any personal health information (PHI) in case they publish a bad review. The HIPAA Privacy Rule forbids covered entities from giving conditions for treatment, payment, enrollment, or basing eligibility to benefits on a person approving an authorization to disclose PHI. That wording was altered in 2019, however, the NDAs still required it up to March 2022.
Besides the claimed HIPAA violations, it is alleged that the practice and owner have not complied with the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA) and the Washington State Consumer Protection Act (CPA). The lawsuit requests the court to void the NDAs, require the practice to send a notification to all patients that the NDAs are void, and prohibit the practice from using NDAs down the road. The practice is to pay monetary damages of around $7,500 per violation and the court has been requested to require the practice to pay $100 to patients as compensation for the consultation fees and give back the rebates that are due to the consumers.
Patients depend on reviews to know whether a healthcare provider is suitable for them. Using legal threats and bribes for manipulating reviews is misleading and causes harm to Washingtonians. AG Ferguson states that these unethical and illegal practices must be stopped.