Dr. Bharat Aggarwal's Attorneys Make Bumptious Legal Threats Against "Retraction Watch" Blog

Law

I say it often: vagueness in legal threats is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.

Today, let's look at a case study.

Retraction Watch Reports on Dr. Bharat Aggarwal

The blog Retraction Watch tracks, and probes, retractions in scientific journals. They say they do so because retractions are a "window into the scientific process," because doing so helps create a repository of retractions and publicize them, because retractions can be the lead-in for a great story about misconduct, and because tracking retractions can help keep scientific journals honest.

Since last January, Retraction Watch has been covering a story regarding a researcher named Dr. Bharat Aggarwal at MD Anderson Cancer Center. For instance, Retraction Watch has reported that people on the internet have accused Dr. Aggarwal of manipulating images in published studies, that MD Anderson is investigating the allegations, and that Dr. Aggarwal has acknowledged the existence of the investigation. Retraction Watch reported when Dr. Aggarwal or editors withdrew papers from publications, and when another journal "corrected" one of his publications.

Dr. Aggarwal Threatens Retraction Watch — Badly.

In March, Dr. Aggarwal — through the Houston firm Paranjpe & Mahadass LLP — threatened to sue Retraction Watch and demanded that Retraction Watch delete all of its posts about Dr. Aggarwal. The letter is here. It is an unusually foolish entry into the genre of ill-considered defamation threats.

Let's take a look:

March 26, 2013

RE: Dr. Bharat Aggarwal! Retraction Watch

Mr. Marcus,

First and foremost, this letter is a good faith attempt to resolve the matter described below without resorting to litigation. Our office has been retained by Dr. Bharat Aggarwal and it has come to our attention that you have an ownership interest in the website www.retractionwatch.wordpress.com. commonly known as Retraction Watch, which has several blogs relating to our client's papers and employment with MD Anderson. After careful review of the articles and blogs, we have found that a vast majority of the statements posted on Retraction Watch are untrue and defamatory. Furthermore, Dr. Aggarwal is not a public figure and is entitled to his privacy. However, due to the recent blogs that have been posted on Retraction Watch, Dr. Aggarwal has been brought into the public eye in a negative manner.

We hereby demand that all articles and blogs relating to Dr. Aggarwal be removed from Retraction Watch and all other related web sites that you control, or have an ownership interest in, within 20 days of the receipt of this letter. If the demands listed above are not met, Dr. Aggarwal has instructed our firm to file a lawsuit against you and all other owners of the website. Please feel free to write our office with any questions or if you would prefer that we direct this matter to your attorney.

Sincerely,

Rajesh Mahadass

Let's take this bit by bit.

Our office has been retained by Dr. Bharat Aggarwal and it has come to our attention that you have an ownership interest in the website www.retractionwatch.wordpress.com. commonly known as Retraction Watch, which has several blogs relating to our client's papers and employment with MD Anderson.

Sensible and careful lawyers writing demand letters about web sites make a reasonable effort to use accurate language. Retraction Watch has multiple blog posts about Dr. Aggarwal. Retraction Watch is a blog; it does not have "several blogs" about Dr. Aggarwal. If you are an attorney, and you are not familiar with common terminology used to describe the subject of your threats, consult someone who is familiar, or you will make yourself look foolish and diminish your credibility immediately. This attorney has signaled from the opening of his letter that he is either sloppy or does not understand what he is talking about. That is not a strong bargaining position.

After careful review of the articles and blogs, we have found that a vast majority of the statements posted on Retraction Watch are untrue and defamatory.

This sentence was a very stupid thing to write.

If Mr. Mahadass means to assert that the "vast majority" of things Retraction Watch has written are "untrue and defamatory," he can't be taken seriously. The most cursory review of Retraction Watch's posts about Dr. Aggarwal show that Retraction Watch has reported an investigation the existence of which Dr. Aggarwal has conceded, the withdrawal or revision of Dr. Aggarwal's articles by journals, and the existence of accusations against Dr. Aggarwal. Those facts have been covered by the Houston Chronicle, and are supported by, for instance, quotes from Dr. Aggarwal and links to the journals taking action. Mr. Mahadass doesn't explain how any of those things are untrue. He can't. He doesn't specify a single false statement of fact in Retraction Watch's coverage. Remember: vagueness in a legal threat is a tell of meritless thuggery.

Perhaps Mr. Mahadass means to suggest that the "vast majority" of statements in the comments at Retraction Watch are untrue and defamatory. If so, he is either incompetent or deceitful. Retraction Watch is not liable for statements by commenters under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It is known. If Mr. Mahadass did not know this, he lacks the competence to be sending demand letters about online content. If Mr. Mahadas did know this, but sent a letter implying that Retraction Watch is liable for what its commenters say, he is deceitful — and deceitful in a very clumsy way.

Perhaps Mr. Mahadass means to suggest that the "vast majority" of statements on Retraction Watch are false and defamatory because Retraction Watch occasionally linked other sites that questioned Dr. Aggarwal, like the now-defunct Abnormal Science or the site Science Fraud. Leave aside the fact that those links are asides forming a miniscule percentage of Retraction Watch's coverage, making the "vast majority" bluster look very foolish. Mr. Mahadass is, once again, being either incompetent or deceitful. If he thinks that linking to another site necessarily constitutes republication of that site's content, he's incompetent, because that's not the law. If he knew that, but sought to suggest otherwise to Retraction Watch, he's being deceitful.

Furthermore, Dr. Aggarwal is not a public figure and is entitled to his privacy. However, due to the recent blogs that have been posted on Retraction Watch, Dr. Aggarwal has been brought into the public eye in a negative manner.

This, once again, is a stupid thing to write. Whether Dr. Aggarwal is a "public figure" might be debatable — though it's difficult to argue he isn't after the Houston Chronicle has reported on this controversy. But even if he is a private figure for purposes of defamation law, Retraction Watch can still freely print true statements about him. Moreover, he has no entitlement to privacy that would prevent anyone from writing about an investigation into the validity of his scientific publications. He has no right not to be "brought into the public eye in a negative manner" by accurate reporting on the existence of investigations. The validity and reliability of cancer research published in scientific journals may be of very little interest to most citizens, but it is quintessentially a matter of public interest for purposes of the First Amendment.

We hereby demand that all articles and blogs relating to Dr. Aggarwal be removed from Retraction Watch and all other related web sites that you control, or have an ownership interest in, within 20 days of the receipt of this letter.

Extravagant demands with no basis in law are also reliable tells of meritless thuggery. Note that Mr. Mahadass does not merely demand that Retraction Watch correct specified incorrect statements in its coverage of Dr. Aggarwal. Rather he demands that Retraction Watch not talk about Dr. Aggarwal at all and delete all mention of him, including parts that quote his own words. Dr. Aggarwal is not entitled to such relief by any stretch of the law or his imagination.

If the demands listed above are not met, Dr. Aggarwal has instructed our firm to file a lawsuit against you and all other owners of the website.

Why can Mr. Mahadass threaten suit, if his demands have no basis in law? He can do so because the system is flawed. He can do so because he knows that many bloggers don't make money from their hobby and can't afford expensive lawyers. He can do so because he knows many people will yield to an unjustified demand because of the stress, uncertainty, and expense of litigation. He can do so because the legal system does not adequately impose consequences on meritless lawsuits. He can do so because the legal system confers upon him the power of a schoolyard bully that can shake down kids for lunch money, because the grown-ups aren't around and are ineffective when they are around.

Yet Retraction Watch need not yield like a bullied kid.

First, Texas has a new and strong anti-SLAPP statute that will let Retraction Watch dismiss any lawsuit early and recover fees and costs. I've explained before how anti-SLAPP statutes help shorten meritless defamation cases and inflict costs on the parties who bring them.

Second, the internet helps call bullies out. Dr. Aggarwal and Mr. Mahadass, I'd like you to meet the Streisand Effect. You're going to have a lot to talk about. Query: have you met before? Mr. Mahadass, before you sent a bumptious letter making legally unsupportable threats against a blog with a wide audience, did you know about the Streisand Effect, and did you advise your client about the potential consequences of your letter?

Third, some of us are not willing to put up with this sort of thing any more. When entitled parties and thuggish attorneys can threaten bloggers with meritless lawsuits with impunity, everyone's right to free speech is threatened. That's why I use the Popehat Signal to seek out pro bono defense for bloggers threatened with censorious lawsuits, and why I work to connect threatened bloggers with free speech groups that defend them. I've almost always been very pleased by the response from the legal community when I've asked for help for a blogger. I've helped people find help in Texas before. Retraction Watch hasn't asked me for help. But if they ask, I'm confident I can get it for them. They shouldn't have to take anything down because they can't afford a lawyer. If you'd like to help — if Retraction Watch needs help — reach out.

My Dialogue With Mr. Mahadass

In closing, I note that I wrote to Mr. Mahadass asking for a comment about this post. Here's our dialogue. See if you can spot the scare quotes that made me laugh out loud.

Dear Mr. Mahadass:

I am an attorney in Los Angeles, a member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, and a blogger. When I write I often focus on free speech issues, particularly legal threats against bloggers, SLAPP suits, and related issues. In addition, I often arrange pro bono assistance for threatened bloggers.

I write in connection with your lawsuit threat against the blog Retraction Watch on behalf of your client Dr. Aggarwal. I am investigating the threat in order to write about it.

Are you willing to make any comment about the matter? I am particularly interested in whether you will comment on what specific statements of fact on Retraction Watch you believe are false, the basis for your demand that all articles about Dr. Aggarwal be removed, your familiarity with Texas' anti-SLAPP statute, your familiarity with the Streisand Effect, and related issues.

Please let me know if you'd be willing to answer some questions.

Thanks,

Ken White
www.popehat.com

Mr. White:

I will more than happily discuss these matters with you if you are confirming your representation of the owners of Retraction Watch. I have been keeping up to date with the posts and the "free speech" posts regarding this case. Please feel free to investigate as much as you want. Send me a confirmation letter of your representation and we can begin,

Raj Mahadass

Mr. Mahadass:

I am not representing anybody. My interest, for now, is as a writer on SLAPP issues and legal threats. I have not been asked to assist the site. If I am asked, my role will be to to solicit pro bono legal assistance from them.

I am writing about your threats, for my audience of people interested in legal threats, and asking if you would like to comment.

Thanks,

Ken White

Mr. White,

Thanks for your correspondence. Best wishes on your website.

Edited to add: Even though I haven't yet lit the Popehat Signal, I've already gotten three offers of pro bono legal help from Texas attorneys, including one with anti-SLAPP experience. You people rock.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

97 Comments

94 Comments

  1. David  •  Apr 11, 2013 @10:57 am

    Govern yourselves incredibly.

  2. Nilsson  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:13 am

    Sensible and careful lawyers writing

    may also be careful what names they choose and use. Seriously — Mahdass, Lawragga? Perhaps someone's medication is out of a joint?

  3. Joe  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:16 am

    Thank you Rajesh Mahadass, I would have never known about Retraction Watch if not for your silly legal threats.

  4. Jeff  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:16 am

    Query: what law firm is so desperate for clients and money that they take this crap on?

  5. Bear  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:17 am

    Are you sute that isn't the law firm Paranjpe, Mahadass, Ahattur?

  6. John Ammon  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:23 am

    You are libel.

    Welcome to the big leagues.

    Conduct yourselves accordingly.

    Burma Shave!

  7. Jay  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:28 am

    After reading about this from Retraction Watch yesterday, I'm so happy the full text of the email was posted. It reads like a Nigerian scam message! Classic!

  8. ricker  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:29 am

    While reading this I was thinking about what Satirical Charles did against Mr. Carreon's threats. It would be interesting if someone like the EFF created a fund to provide legal support that would allow a threatened blogger to sue for a declaratory judgement against baseless legal threats. This may nip some of these in the bud and maybe teach some lessons.

  9. Kat  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:32 am

    This is the same sort of behavior that's plaguing Dr Stephen Barrett over at Quackwatch.com.

    http://www.quackwatch.com/14Legal/dd_suit.html

    Kudos to you, Ken, for standing up to bullies on the interwebz!

  10. MattS  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:48 am

    Nosslin,

    Perhaps it is your meds that are out of joint. The potential plaintiff's name is Aggarwal not Lawragga.

  11. Mike  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:50 am

    "free speech"

  12. naught_for_naught  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:56 am

    >Dave

    Nice. We can turn that into an oxymoron too: Govern yourself in incorrigibly. That's what I aim for.

  13. Nilsson  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:58 am

    MattS: Ah, but you see that all depends on your sense of writing! And, I said 'out of a joint'. Not that I would know anything at all about such, as such, of course.

  14. Marc  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:02 pm

    "It is known" – Heh.

  15. Trebuchet  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:16 pm

    @Nilsson: From their names, it's apparent that both the plaintiff and the lawyers are of South Asian/Indian extraction. Likely the law firm draws much, if not all, of its business from that community. They may also know the doctor socially, and think they're helping out a friend and fellow countryman. They're not, of course.

  16. Nilsson  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:24 pm

    Yeah, I guessed so too. Still: Mahadass? Haha.

  17. Ken  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:26 pm

    I don't get what their names have to do with anything.

  18. Lucy  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:27 pm

    Referring to free speech in quotes is straight up patronizing. What a dick. His response to your email proves he's well practiced at dancing around a point too. It was very clear you were not introducing yourself as opposing council. Nice way to milk clients out of money billing for time spent clarifying obvious issues.

  19. DP  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:34 pm

    Texas does not recognize "false light" claims.

  20. Delvan Neville  •  Apr 11, 2013 @12:40 pm

    I have been keeping up to date with the posts and the "free speech" posts regarding this case

    Perhaps he'd like to "read" some relevant parts in the "Constitution", specifically the "First Amendment" therein.

    Welcome to the yourself accordingly.

  21. MattS  •  Apr 11, 2013 @1:10 pm

    Delvan Neville,

    "Perhaps he'd like to "read" some relevant parts in the "Constitution", specifically the "First Amendment" therein."

    I don't think that that would help. Given the email exchange between Mr. Mahadass and Ken, Mr Mahadass would seem to have some reading comprehension issues.

  22. Nilsson  •  Apr 11, 2013 @1:18 pm

    Ken: nothing, obviously, except for some extra silly hilarity. Which is, as you point out, redundant.

  23. Michael Mock  •  Apr 11, 2013 @1:27 pm

    "Send me a confirmation letter of your representation and we can begin," to Enter the Big Leagues!

  24. Bob Brown  •  Apr 11, 2013 @1:33 pm

    There may be some other meaning to the names, unknown to me, but at first glance, I read the name of the threatening thug as "Madass."

    I guess I may note, with no connection to to anyone's name, that the term "thug" originated in India. It is known.

  25. Frank Reid  •  Apr 11, 2013 @1:58 pm

    Awesome post. To paraphrase Forrest Gump: "I don't know anything about the law, but I know what stupid is."

  26. Dr.Tom  •  Apr 11, 2013 @2:05 pm

    I continue to be amazed at the use of the English language by attorneys of all stripes. Usually it is the use of alien jargon and obscure (to me) words.

    This time, in his last email, Mr. Mahadass tells Ken to 'f' off in a much more pleasant tone than would typically be expected.

    Maybe I've been hanging out with the wrong type of bhad-ass.

  27. apauld  •  Apr 11, 2013 @2:13 pm

    Ken, major props on going to their site to let them know about your hobby of helping bloggers find pro bono reps. Awesome as always. Paul.

  28. Jay  •  Apr 11, 2013 @2:13 pm

    I don't understand how their names and (assumed) ethnic backgrounds have any bearing on the subject legal threats.

    Making baseless legal threats is one type of thuggery; mocking someone because their name sounds "funny" is another. I'm not saying there's 1:1 parity in the level of thuggery, but it really detracts from the discussion here.

  29. Merissa  •  Apr 11, 2013 @2:22 pm

    I used to transcribe for this guy. Too bad he isn't as good at research as he is at dictating.

  30. Nobody  •  Apr 11, 2013 @2:24 pm

    > I don't get what their names have to do with anything.

    I sounds like they're Mahadass hell and aren't going to take it any more.

  31. Nate  •  Apr 11, 2013 @2:59 pm

    And sciFinder searching I go! Yay! I'm pretty sure I can count this as work.

    I read Retraction Watch from time to time, and from everything I've read, they seem to stick to verifiable facts. Retractions and corrections are reported by the journal. I think they would be considered public record. I believe the science community needs something like Retraction Watch to keep everyone honest and to help people be skeptical of certain articles and labs. (I think the moral of the story is: If you are worried about your scientific reputation, don't do sloppy science and check your grad students' work.)

  32. Xenocles  •  Apr 11, 2013 @3:09 pm

    "This time, in his last email, Mr. Mahadass tells Ken to 'f' off in a much more pleasant tone than would typically be expected."

    I'll give the guy this much, it was a classy brush-off. Sort of a "I have nothing to say to you, so have a nice life." Smart, too, since he really shouldn't say all that much to Ken in the first place.

  33. eh  •  Apr 11, 2013 @3:31 pm

    LOLFOREIGNERS, AMIRITE?

  34. Aaron S.  •  Apr 11, 2013 @3:39 pm

    Some of my favorite cases have been against attorneys that don't understand either the facts or the law, especially in technology. I don't think it's a competence issue, I think it's a billing issue (assuming the two don't always go hand-in-hand).

  35. Justin  •  Apr 11, 2013 @3:45 pm

    How does one respond to Popehat signals? I'm not in TX, but I'm willing to help.

  36. Lois Turner  •  Apr 11, 2013 @3:56 pm

    An unlikely piece of British legal history occurred in what is now referred to as the "case" of Arkell v. Pressdram (1971). The plaintiff was the subject of an article relating to illicit payments, and the magazine had ample evidence to back up the article. Arkell's lawyers wrote a letter which concluded: "His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply." The magazine's response was, in full: "We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell's attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off."

    From Wikipedia article on 'Private Eye' magazine.

  37. Bob Brown  •  Apr 11, 2013 @4:27 pm

    @Jay: I apologize if I have detracted from the level of discussion. There was a question about names, and a mis-fired neuron really did cause me to read it as "Madass" the first time I saw it, and before the question was asked. That may be because I once worked with something called the Mayo-Altmeyer Data Acquisition Service System, and known by its initials. Truly.

    I know all about mocking and names. Sing an couple of bars of Barbara-Ann, then look just above my picture. I am so sensitized that recently I was able to prevent a mother from giving her son a name with the initials MOM. (The kid will be an OMM instead, and still called Mike.

    It is true that I can't quite claim the random firing of synapses for my observation of the origin of the word "thug," but close, because the word had been used at least a couple of times in the article.

  38. azteclady  •  Apr 11, 2013 @4:27 pm

    On topic: "free speech" posts–seriously? And I'm with those who said that Mr Madhass misunderstood Ken's first email mostly for billable hours reasons.

    Off topic: as a legal resident, the play on the names of the people involved makes me very uncomfortable. Censorious douchebaggery has fuck all to do with ethnicity, nationality, first language, sexuality, age–haven't we seen plenty of proof of that so far?

  39. Trebuchet  •  Apr 11, 2013 @4:33 pm

    @Jay:
    I don't understand how their names and (assumed) ethnic backgrounds have any bearing on the subject legal threats.

    Making baseless legal threats is one type of thuggery; mocking someone because their name sounds "funny" is another. I'm not saying there's 1:1 parity in the level of thuggery, but it really detracts from the discussion here.

    Exactly right. Especially coming from someone with one to many "s" in his name.

  40. Frank Rizzo  •  Apr 11, 2013 @5:12 pm

    This can't be the possibly be the same guy? I'm getting ready to make some calls about this just as soon as I finish my fava beans.

  41. apauld  •  Apr 11, 2013 @5:26 pm

    Ken, is this Rajesh Mahadass is also the Rajesh Mahadass who is an Assistant District Attorney for Harris County Texas?

  42. Ken  •  Apr 11, 2013 @5:28 pm

    @apauld: I assume not. I don't know.

    Someone using the same IP address used to send me the emails from Mr. Mahadass has been visiting the site repeatedly in the last few hours. They've clicked the links to learn about Section 230 and the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute. Better late than never, I suppose.

  43. Rob  •  Apr 11, 2013 @6:04 pm

    @Lois Turner: That's a good one. It's on the same level as the "I feel you should be aware that some asshole is signing your name to stupid letters" reply.

  44. anne mouse  •  Apr 11, 2013 @6:10 pm

    Frank Rizzo, apauld:

    The data shown in that link are from 2009. A quick check of the Harris County website seems to indicate that they no longer have any employees by that name. So it might be the same guy, gone into private practice after having served a couple years as a poorly-paid ADA. Or it could be somebody else. Not sure I see the point of this investigation. "Our" R. Mahadass is a member of the Texas bar in good standing – has been since 2005, a few months after he got his JD from a well-regarded law school [US News ranks it a few spots above mine, in fact].

  45. Dr.Tom  •  Apr 11, 2013 @6:21 pm

    This technique for writing a nasty-grams to people threatening probably has worked plenty of times in the past. As you mentioned, lawyers have power to act as bullies with threats with little personal risk. Even filing lawsuits is generally a pretty safe action as the likelihood of being hit with a SLAPP suit in response is pretty low. Let's face it – most people don't have the knowledge or deep pockets to challenge this kind of letter. It's easier to just comply.

    That said, every once in a while you grab a live wire and get shocked.

    And, as if Dr. Bharat Aggarwal didn't have enough problems, it now appears that people who look up his name will be redirected to find out that (in my opinion) he has hired attorney Rajesh Mahadass who has either limited knowledge of the law or is choosing to make threats despite knowledge he is wrong. I am not sure what is worse.

    Obviously these are statements of opinion.

  46. anne mouse  •  Apr 11, 2013 @6:23 pm

    Actually, given that the Texas bar association only has a record for one attorney by that name, it's very likely the same person.

  47. Lucy  •  Apr 11, 2013 @6:24 pm

    @Rob, That is a great site. They don't write 'em like they used to. Nowadays that would be reduced to a tweet, even though it would be a great response to the letter in this post.

  48. Graham Shevlin  •  Apr 11, 2013 @6:56 pm

    Well, thanks to the mentioned of Retraction Watch I went over to that website, discovered that they are indeed fighting off more than one legal ambush from bullies, so I donated to them. I hope that others do the same.
    As for the attempt by these lawyers to strike the fear of terrible things into Retraction Watch, I can only shake my head and wonder whether any of these people actually bothered to, you know, do some real research before firing up their BBM (Bullying and Bloviation Machine).

  49. GrimGhost  •  Apr 11, 2013 @7:12 pm

    To Rajesh Mahadass, Esquire:

    Ken White of POPEHAT has taken an interest in your legal threats against a blogger. Govern yourself accordingly. Welcome to the big leagues.

  50. ChugiakTinkerer  •  Apr 11, 2013 @7:18 pm

    @GG

    Thank gods I'm not drinking soda or coffee right now, cleanup would be a mess. Well played!

  51. xbradtc  •  Apr 11, 2013 @7:39 pm

    Dr. Bharat Aggarwal should have hired Prenda Law for all his demand letter needs.

  52. Grifter  •  Apr 11, 2013 @7:46 pm

    VILTITHOMT (Vagueness In Legal Threats Is The Hallmark Of Meritless Thuggery) should be an acronym for all posts like this.

  53. Myk  •  Apr 11, 2013 @8:00 pm

    @grifter – Vague Or Meritless Intimidatory Thuggishness (VOMIT) works for me

  54. Josh C  •  Apr 11, 2013 @8:24 pm

    Many unnecessary quotes aren't actually "scare quotes," they're just "signs" of "bad writing."

  55. Mark Lyon  •  Apr 11, 2013 @8:28 pm

    A counterexample, complete with specificity and exhibits: http://uncrunched.com/2013/04/11/jennifer-allen-false-defamatory/

  56. Grifter  •  Apr 11, 2013 @8:29 pm

    @Josh C:

    Some people use quotes for "emphasis".

  57. Narad  •  Apr 11, 2013 @9:07 pm

    They've clicked the links to learn about Section 230 and the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute. Better late than never, I suppose.

    Perhaps he'll run it past his aunt and uncle.

    (Please ignore the identical one in the mod queue.)

  58. MattS  •  Apr 11, 2013 @10:00 pm

    Dr. Tom,

    " Rajesh Mahadass who has either limited knowledge of the law or is choosing to make threats despite knowledge he is wrong. I am not sure what is worse."

    Why does one have to be worse than the other.

    ID10T or Asshat, pick one.

  59. Delvan  •  Apr 11, 2013 @10:13 pm

    @Grifter

    Exactly. Bad writing. :)

  60. DavidK  •  Apr 11, 2013 @11:57 pm

    I had a few quick questions which I apologise if they been answered in previous blog posts.

    How does pro bono work in relation to claiming Lawyer fees and costs?

    I had noticed that the article says anti-SLAPP allows for recovery of these. Would knowing that Retraction Watch (RW) might be able to get pro bono representation, if they wanted it, act as a deterent to Mr Mahadass (RW are more likely to go to court) or an encouragement to Mr Mahadass (RW might not be able to claim as much in fees and costs)?

  61. Basil Forthrightly  •  Apr 12, 2013 @7:13 am

    Having skimmed Retraction Watch, I'd say the content they're responsible for has been couched in circumspect professional language focusing on verifiable and non-controversial facts. Some of the comments are potentially problematic, but as Ken points out, Retraction Watch is covered by Section 230 immunity there.

    The most devastating comments for Aggarwal are actually the bare links to a Japanese site hosting a collection of image analysis based on material from Aggarwal's papers. The sheer number of oddities uncovered so far is, um, "nontrivial", and while many of them could plausibly be editorial error or publication sloppiness, some examples can only be described as "purposely constructed" (in other words, "photoshopped").

    To be fair, Aggarwal's papers are collaborations and also include the work of his lab's staff; the existence of any single image can't lead us to logical conclusions about Aggarwal himself.

  62. Another Dan  •  Apr 12, 2013 @7:41 am

    Ken, You manage to do something, I never thought possible. Making law interesting. After reading the threat I knew it was wrong, but not why it was wrong. Would Mr. Mahadass have a case, even if a small trivial case, if hey had governed himself more carefully? After all, $500 or a $500K legal fees for some bloggers (college students) could both potentially be a big deal.

  63. Blah  •  Apr 12, 2013 @8:23 am

    I love seeing these awful legal nastygrams. What kind of a lawyer takes on a case like this and then thinks "yes, sending this letter is a good use of my time and my client's money"?

    On the subject of the Popehat signal – any updates on the more recent ones, Ken? I'm thinking specifically of the band fansite and the 'most hated company' ones, since those both attracted a lot of guessing regarding the parties involved.

  64. Dan Weber  •  Apr 12, 2013 @8:26 am

    They've clicked the links to learn about Section 230 and the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute

    How can you tell what someone clicks on on your website? It's a plain old HTML link, and your server shouldn't be involved in that, unless the other site provides some kind of notification back to you.

  65. John Ammon  •  Apr 12, 2013 @8:33 am

    @Dan – Services like Google Analytics and other stat-tracking software can catch that stuff easily.

  66. Michael Mock  •  Apr 12, 2013 @9:14 am

    @ Grifter -"VILTITHOMT (Vagueness In Legal Threats Is The Hallmark Of Meritless Thuggery) should be an acronym for all posts like this."

    Viltithomt should be the name of a villain in a fantasy novel, methinks. Probably with "Lord", "Master", "King", or "Evil High Priest" in front of it.

  67. David Witt  •  Apr 12, 2013 @9:35 am

    Hmmm, that name looks familiar, like a lawyer I once knew, Otto Mahass, esq.

  68. John Ammon  •  Apr 12, 2013 @9:42 am

    @Michael Mock – I think it sounds most like an "Evil High Priest"

  69. patilistan  •  Apr 12, 2013 @10:35 am

    @MattS: Mahadasshat?

  70. Nobody  •  Apr 12, 2013 @12:27 pm

    > How can you tell what someone clicks on on your website? It's a plain old HTML link, and your server shouldn't be involved in that

    It also accesses a new page, which it must request from his webserver. This leaves an entry in the access log with the time, IP, URL and a few other details. If you've noticed, the URLs have the post title in them, so that makes their topic really easy to see. So all he had to do was to look up that IP in his server logs and he'd get a list of everything on the site that the guy had been reading.

    If you're paranoid enough, BTW, this could have been avoided. Simply use Google's cache to read stuff and/or a proxy. Of course, then Google has the information, but they're a lot less likely to single you out unless there's a request from law enforcement or the like.

  71. Lucy  •  Apr 12, 2013 @12:33 pm

    Startpage.com is what I use for searching. Google is creepy.

  72. Neal H  •  Apr 12, 2013 @1:33 pm

    @DavidK

    In regards to fees and costs, pro bono (when handlded properly) should work the same as any other type of attorney-client relationship. The attorney should still keep track of the billable hours on which he or she works on behalf of a client. That way, in a case in which attorney fees are at issue, the attorney could still seek recovery of the fees incurred on behalf of the client even if the client is not paying those fees.

    In order to recover, the attorney would have to offer evidence of the retention agreement with the client indicating the amount of the attorney's billable rate or the agreed upon flat fee, would need to provide the fact-finder with the breakdown of fees and expenses incurred for the representation, and would need to introduce testimony that the fees and expenses incurred were reasonable in that jurisdiction for the work that was done.

  73. Ken  •  Apr 12, 2013 @1:36 pm

    I cant speak to Texas' statute, but California's anti-SLAPP statute allows a pro bono attorney to recover fees.

  74. Josh M.  •  Apr 12, 2013 @1:49 pm

    @Mark Lyon

    That right there is a thing of beauty. That's what I would expect if I asked a lawyer to write a demand letter. Clear, concise, professional. And devastatingly supported by factual information.

    I may have to keep following that story. Looks interesting…

  75. Earle  •  Apr 12, 2013 @1:50 pm

    @DavidK

    For a perfect example, read the recent decision awarding attorney's fees against Charles Carreon.

    http://www.popehat.com/2013/03/20/in-which-charles-carreon-says-mostly-true-things-about-me-in-a-footnote/#comment-1020675

  76. anne mouse  •  Apr 12, 2013 @2:36 pm

    @Nobody:

    It also accesses a new page, which it must request from his webserver.

    No, that's the whole point. The only page to be accessed resides on a different webserver (dmlp.org). Your browser should not and does not report to Popehat that it is accessing some other server.

    Just to make sure Ken wasn't doing something sneaky (a hidden redirect would do the trick) I checked the HTML from Popehat:

    new and strong anti-SLAPP statute

    So, the only remaining way this kind of tracking is possible is with the participation of the linked site. For example, if somebody lazily has their browser set to allow third-party cookies and some third party (like Google) is supplying cookies to the linked site AND correlating that with visits to Popehat (presumably via cookies as well) AND sharing that data with Ken.

  77. anne mouse  •  Apr 12, 2013 @2:37 pm

    whoops, let's try that HTML again:


    <a href="http://www.dmlp.org/legal-guide/anti-slapp-law-texas" target="_blank">new and strong anti-SLAPP statute</a>

  78. Earle  •  Apr 12, 2013 @2:54 pm

    @anne mouse

    The browser may or may not report the referring web page, depending on implementation and privacy settings. It is part of the HTTP standard that the browser reports what page is was that hosted the link you followed.

    Per Wikipedia:
    "When visiting a webpage, the referrer or referring page is the URL of the previous webpage from which a link was followed."
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_referer

  79. anne mouse  •  Apr 12, 2013 @3:01 pm

    Oh, I forgot, there's a variation on the "sneaky redirect" that wouldn't show up from such a casual glance at the HTML. The standards are supposed to make this impossible, but I'm not sure: you might be able to dynamically add an OnClick script to every A tag on a site. (Thus it wouldn't show up in the HTML itself, just in a separate CSS document and/or a separate Javascript file, which could be pretty well obscured by "minification". If anybody has figured it out, Woopra and Shopaholic would have, and Ken uses both.

  80. anne mouse  •  Apr 12, 2013 @3:04 pm

    Earle, that's different. When you go from Popehat to DMLP, your browser (if it obeys the usual conventions) tells DMLP that you were just at Popehat. It does not tell Popehat that you're going to DMLP.

  81. goph1101  •  Apr 12, 2013 @3:23 pm

    While Dr. Aggarwal appears to be an douche with his litigious behavior, why is more scorn not placed with the law firm which is used as the weapon of the thuggery? As someone who has little knowledge of the law, Dr. Aggarwal should not be as informed of Section 230 or Anti-SLAAP laws. In my opinion Paranjpe & Mahadass LLP and their willingness to be the club to beat down the blogger makes them more reprehensible because they are the ones who should know better. Dr Aggarwal is just the smallest guy who talks shit only when his big friends are around.

    As someone who admittedly knows no lawyers and had very little interaction with them, I am curious to know if its an ethical role of serving whatever the client requests that allows so many of these threats to go on or if its just the general fact that some firms will do whatever for the fee. After reading about Prenda I am assuming the latter.

    While Dr. Asshat would surely be able to eventually find some firm to send these requests, shouldn't these firms be called out equally or even more so?

  82. anne mouse  •  Apr 12, 2013 @3:25 pm

    Yep, found an easy way to do my sneaky thing using jquery. Too lazy to really analyze the code on Ken's site, but I see some smoke.

    To clarify: the part that's supposed to be impossible is to mix CSS and javascript in certain ways – CSS is supposed to be about presentation only, javascript is mostly about behavior. Jquery does it all in Javascript (using the DOM), but provides convenient syntax reminiscent of CSS.

  83. Earle  •  Apr 12, 2013 @3:25 pm

    @anne mouse

    Of course you're right. I clearly didn't think that bit through.

  84. anne mouse  •  Apr 12, 2013 @3:47 pm

    goph1101 – I don't know about Texas, but in most states there's an ethics portion to the bar exam, and a requirement for refresher courses. So yes, lawyers should know better. Embarrass yourself enough, and you can get disbarred.

    One response if you get a letter like this is to report it to the state's board of bar examiners. This is a bit like dealing with a school bully by telling his parents, except that bar boards tend to be like alcoholic parents who simply don't care what sadistic games their kids are up to, unless it involves money or embarrasses them in front of somebody important. You'll get an investigation that can take months or years, and then a slap on the wrist – usually an anonymous reprimand and a warning not to do it again. The Streisand Effect is much more effective.

  85. Basil Forthrightly  •  Apr 12, 2013 @9:10 pm

    @anne mouse
    Texas' professional licensing boards have historically been ludicrously lenient, for example an attorney who commingled a settlement with personal funds and failed to disburse it to the client was recently slapped with a 12-month license suspension.

    However, the attorneys board aren't as bad as the doctors board, historically. There was once a back surgeon, Eric Scheffy, with a grotesque record of malpractice problems. He killed at least 5 patients. In one case in 1985, the patient simply bled out during surgery; five days later, Scheffy was arrested following aberrant behavior in a store and found to have 30 grams of cocaine in his Jaguar. For this, the state board put him on a supervised probation. He eventually lost his license in 2005.
    http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/dr-evil

  86. Kevin  •  Apr 12, 2013 @10:22 pm

    Earlier today, I learned of the Kermit Gosnell case via the Popehat twitter feed. And now, I learn of Eric Scheffy, via @Basil Forthrightly's comment.

    Fuck.

    Are you guys trying do bum me out?

    I need to go look at some pictures of kittens or something now.

  87. Narad  •  Apr 12, 2013 @10:24 pm

    However, the attorneys board aren't as bad as the doctors board, historically.

    Don't even get me started about their latest botched attempt to go after Burzynski.

  88. Kevin  •  Apr 12, 2013 @11:06 pm

    So… continuing reading Basil's linked article on "Doctor Evil", Eric Scheffy, a man who clearly viewed his MD as a license to print money, at the expense of ruining people's lives…. why is it that I keep finding myself picturing John Steele in my mental image of the events described?

  89. Trebuchet  •  Apr 13, 2013 @9:18 am

    During a period of sleeplessness in the middle of the night, a hypothesis popped into my head:
    Dr. Aggarwal got his BS in 1970, so he's at least 60 years old. Paranjpe & Mahadass were licensed in 2010 and 2005, respectively, so almost certainly much younger. Their firm was only started in 2012. All three are Indian-American.

    So I picture Aggarwal playing golf with his friend, Mahadass Sr. He's bemoaning the fact that he's being smeared, as he sees it, on the internet. Mahadass Sr. says, "Hey, my son's just started a law practice. He could write you a letter on official stationary and they'll go away!" And we see the result.

    This hypothesis, unfortunately, falls apart due to my inability to find any other Mahadass in Texas.

    So I'll modify it: Paranjpe & Mahadass are fairly recent immigrants. (My hypothesis, remember, I don't know this for a fact.) They've started a practice catering to the Indian-American community, perhaps helping with immigration issues or stuff going on back in India. Aggarwal knows their parents back in India, and decides to do them a favor. Same result.

    Plausible?

  90. Trebuchet  •  Apr 13, 2013 @9:23 am

    A bit more Googling: There's a Dr. Pavani Mahadass in New Jersey, aged 66, graduated in India in 1969. Perhaps our attorney's mother?

    I suppose I'm pretty much grasping at straws here, but it's kind of fun!

  91. Narad  •  Apr 13, 2013 @11:39 am

    Plausible?

    Mahadass's uncle is Texas talk-show host Michael Berry. Both he and his wife Nandita are laywers, although Berry is not currently practicing. If you want to play connect the dots for some reason, I'd suggest this angle.

  92. Charlotte  •  Apr 13, 2013 @3:23 pm

    "Bumptious". *swoon*

    This particular discussion reminds me of the campaign a certain person of my acquaintance who had actively joined forces with a number of (among others) anti-Muslim hate groups waged against a "watchdog" blog operator – comment wars, legal threats, counter-blogging, a full-on smear campaign. After the blogger died unexpectedly she must have sent a whale of a threat letter, because the family not only took the site down, they gave her access to the guy's email account (which she combed through looking for "sources").

    I had previously got a series of legal threats (starting with an Oh-God-Thirty call to my unlisted cell phone) from someone presenting himself as her lawyer when I republished information from the blog about her arrest.

    The lawyer in question turned out to be licensed to practice in other countries and his command of the written English language was hi-lar-i-ous. (N.B. it was not an ESL issue as he was a British expat. Although one of the other hilarious things was that he considered himself an EXPERT in US law because it was based on the British system and he knew that very well!)

    They did make the mistake of threatening a friend of mine who is a paralegal (and very good at what she does) at the same time so my friend was able to talk me down. I wish I'd known about Popehat then, though!

    This … interesting … person still "visits" my mailbox occasionally (despite, as I found the last time, a request to the lawyer for her to cease private contact), but she's generally moved on to other things, including issuing a DMCA takedown against another site that included her mug shot in a post about her involvement with (another) hate group.

    TL; DR: Seeing these bullies get what they deserve is quite therapeutic.

  93. Trebuchet  •  Apr 13, 2013 @4:56 pm

    Mahadass's uncle is Texas talk-show host Michael Berry. Both he and his wife Nandita are laywers, although Berry is not currently practicing. If you want to play connect the dots for some reason, I'd suggest this angle.

    I bow in awe of your superior Google-fu! Now to look up Berry!

  94. Allen  •  Apr 13, 2013 @7:35 pm

    If one publishes one's work in a journal is it not making your work public? Are you not now by definition a public figure to some extent?

    Perhaps the good doctor and his attorneys are unclear on the concept, and purpose, of publishing scientific results and methodologies.

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