A war of words over an online company that offers a real estate referral service has escalated to a lawsuit against a blogger but has not doused the Internet discussion.

Volodymyr "Vlad" Zablotskyy, a former real estate agent who maintains the Go-Beyond-MLS.com blog, had earlier received a letter from ePerks that asked him to cease alleged "ongoing efforts to unfairly disparage and slander ePerks.com through the dissemination of false and/or manufactured information."

The letter also stated, "Any resistance to our demands will be met with swift and decisive action," and referred to blog posts that Zablotskyy had written. The blog posts had cost the company "multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars" in damages, the letter also alleged.

On June 4, lawyers for ePerks filed a civil complaint that alleges damage to business reputation and loss of earning capacity related to an alleged "accusation on his blog Web site" that ePerks "was responsible for an anonymous Internet posting alleging that (Zablotskyy) was a child molester."

The blog post, according to the complaint, "was intended to cause … financial harm and was knowingly false."

Titled "How Far Do You Go To Silence a Blogger and When Does it Become Too Far?" the April 2 blog post by Zablotskyy states that he had a "gut feeling" after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from an ePerks lawyer that "my problems associated with this company were far from over. I was not that far off."

In the same post he details a post at the Yahoo Answers Web site titled, "Vlad Zablotskyy child molestation cases, please come forward?" written by a user titled "Jafarr S."

Later, in a May 21 blog post titled, "Am I Being Sued By ePerks," Zablotskyy states that he believed that the person who posted the item at Yahoo Answers "has connection to ePerks."

His involvement with ePerks began with a paid blog post he wrote for ePerks, which had paid some bloggers to write about the company as a marketing strategy.

Zablotskyy said, that if he "knew what kind of hell I am going to get into over this company, I would have never agreed to that very first paid review."

Karl S. Kronenberger, a lawyer who is representing Zablotskyy, characterized the complaint as a "SLAPP" case, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation that is intended to silence critics.

"It is sort of appalling that you would have this sort of lawsuit," Kronenberger said. "It’s sad to see people engaging in this sort of activity against my client."

He said that his firm has handled previous cases involving "anonymous defamation" on the Web.

Ron Cook, a lawyer who is representing Ben Behrouzi, ePerks CEO, said ePerks "categorically denies" that ePerks was responsible for the posting on the Yahoo site. He also said it is not "beyond any bounds of possibility that somebody who maybe favors ePerks wrote that — we have no idea who wrote that. It could be anybody."

He noted that some real estate bloggers have rallied behind Zablotskyy. Greg Swann, creator of the BloodhoundBlog, a real estate blog, set up a legal defense fund to aid Zablotskyy, for example, and some other bloggers have also expressed support for his legal fight.

"Clearly, his minions out there are rallying behind him," Cook said. "I’m sure he has supporters."

Cook said ePerks was left with few other options than a lawsuit. "What are we going to do? We tried to reason with him. There has been plenty of communication through Ben and Vlad on this issue."

Behrouzi said he believes that those who write about Zablotskyy’s battle with ePerks are simply out to draw more traffic to their own Web sites. "They are trying to live off the company and raise their blog ranking. It’s really disgusting."

Cook said that ePerks is not trying to squelch free speech. "The issue we’re trying to promote is responsible speech. If you’re going to take us on and criticize us, at least do it with some comments that have some validity to them," he said.

"The free speech aspect of all of this is an important consideration. We don’t expect to live in a bubble where nobody can throw darts. We want to make sure the darts are fairly thrown."

He also said that the estimated damage to the company from the negative statements on the Internet are "conservatively … in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." Cook noted that some online sites have altered the ePerks logo to read "eJerks" and have posted that logo at their Web sites.

Behrouzi said that the company does "seek to hold people accountable," and named Trace Richardson, creator of the BrokerScience blog, as another blogger who is posting items about the company. "At some point you get to this tipping point that you’ve got to go out there and do something," Behrouzi said.

Cook added, "We’re not going to just lay down and take it. We may have to reach out to (Richardson) as well and remind him what the bounds of the law are."

Richardson has posted several blog items about the dispute between Zablotskyy and ePerks, and today his site included a post that includes alleged audio recordings of Behrouzi, titled, "ePerks CEO Ben Behrouzi Voicemails Exposed."

In an Inman News interview, Richardson said, "There is a principle involved of the ability of the blogger to express an opinion. To write a critical piece. That affects us all."

He said he has been contacted by ePerks officials about his writings at the site, and he offered, "If anything is printed that’s wrong, we’ll print a retraction — make corrections."

Richardson said that if he, too, is hit with a lawsuit from ePerks, he expects to prevail. "If you have to do it, you have to do it. When we win, we will have that much more leverage in the future when people come to us," he said.

Joe Ferrara who writes for the Sellsius Real Estate blog, said that there are "a lot of lessons to be learned from the case," and he said the lawsuit may have been prevented if Zablotskyy had brought a lawyer into the matter at its earliest stage.

"When you first get contact from an attorney, you should immediately stop talking," he said. "From a legal point of view sometimes you make things worse by talking. A cease-and-desist (letter) means someone is watching you and it could be ugly. When you get that letter you should talk to a lawyer."

Ferrara also said that he expects the lawsuit and related discussion "will hurt the company drastically … because it’s in the blogging community and because it has been picked up by the public."

Ferrara said he believes Zablotskyy will prevail. While the company "can probably prove without problem that they are suffering damages, the problem is: "Will they be able to prove the claim. Did he intend to imply that he was referring to ePerks in the post."

If the company does prevail, it may not serve the company well in the end, he said. "The fact they won would almost be irrelevant," as the publicity around the case could have a negative impact.

Such lawsuits could have a "chilling effect" on the blogging community, he said. "People will play it safer."

There are still questions about whether the protections for traditional media extend into personal blogging, he said.

Inman News reporter Matt Carter earlier reported on a Miami blogger who lost his job and was hit with a $25 million lawsuit related to a blog post he wrote.


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