Robert Lee went into Dr. Stacy Makhnevich’s New York dentist office for a sore tooth, but the year that followed turned into what one Public Citizen senior lawyer called an “unconscionable practice.”
The controversy began in 2010, when Lee went into Makhnevich’s office for a scheduled dentist’s appointment. Bleary from pain, Lee claimed he was told he had to sign several papers, including a “Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy,” before being treated. The form required Lee to agree not to publish any commentary or write anything disparaging about his experience with Makhnevich.
While Lee said he was hesitant to sign such a form, he claimed he was in severe pain and, therefore, gave in to the requirements.
Lee received a bill for $4,766 for the dental work, according to Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. Lee reportedly asked the dentist to send the necessary paperwork to his insurance company, but she sent it to the wrong company. When he asked for the forms to submit them himself, Makhnevich’s office apparently refused to hand them over and referred him to a third party that required five percent of the total bill for its services.
Fed up, Lee wrote negative reviews about Makhnevich and her practice on Yelp and DoctorBase.
Lee then received a letter from the dentist demanding that he delete the post, warning him that he violated the agreement and threatening to sue for breach of contract. Makhnevich also reached out to both websites, asking for Lee’s comments to be removed, according to Public Citizen.
The sites refused to take down the negative reviews, but Makhneich reportedly claimed that a copyright clause gave her ownership of the harsh words. She then sent Lee an invoice for $100 for each day the criticism remained online.
Makhnevich did not immediately return requests for comment.
“We are now seeking a declaratory judgment from the judge to show that my client was not doing anything wrong,” said Paul Levy, Lee’s lawyer, a senior attorney at Public Citizen. “Doctors and dentists are expected to behave in an ethical manner, and to impose this sort of requirement on people who are having emergencies is unethical.”
The suit argues that the forms that Lee signed should be deemed null and void.
“Facing criticism comes with the turf of these jobs,” Levy said. “If they defame you, then that’s something else. A doctor can sue for that.”
A North Carolina company known as Medical Justice sells the agreement forms to health care providers. The company claims about 3,000 doctors and dentists use the forms, according to Public Citizen.
In response to the lawsuit Public Citizen filed Tuesday night, Medical Justice spokespeople announced the company would stop recommending medical professionals have patients sign such forms, Public Citizen announced.
“This is a form of bullying, and it’s absurd that this could possibly be an enforceable contract,” said Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. ”It infringes upon free speech and you can’t just have that waived away on a silence contract.”
While Caplan acknowledged that doctors or dentists can indeed get “bum raps” from bad write-ups online, “someone who is put off by one negative review isn’t a patient you’d want anyway. If there’s a pattern of bad reviews, that’s a different story.”
“This doctor is overreacting and attempting to muzzle patients,” added Caplan. “It is not a desirable reaction at all.”