Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill is encouraging consumers to contact his office if they have been penalized for posting truthful, negative reviews of businesses online, advice that comes on the heels of national backlash against a Brown County inn that charged a customer for posting a negative review.
Hill’s office filed an injunctive complaint against Abbey Management Inc. last week after the defendant, which owns Abbey Inn & Suites in Nashville, charged Katrina Arthur $350 for leaving a negative online review after her stay at the inn in March 2016. According to the consumer complaint Arthur filed with the attorney general’s office, her room at the inn smelled like sewage, was unkempt and did not have working air conditioning.
There were no on-site employees available to resolve the issues with Arthur’s room, and her calls to an after-hours phone line went unanswered, the AG’s complaint alleges. So when Arthur received an email from the management company after her stay encouraging her to leave an online review, she posted negative comments.
That review ultimately led to an additional $350 charge to Arthur’s credit card and a threat of legal action from Andrew Szakaly, the owner of Abbey Management who also acts as his company’s legal representative. Szakaly works as an attorney for the Szakaly Law Office in Nashville, according to the Indiana Roll of Attorneys. He is also currently finishing a term as Brown County chief deputy prosecutor, according to WRTV 6.
The charge and threat of legal action against Arthur came pursuant to a company policy that required guests to submit all complaints in writing to the inn’s management prior to checking out. If a customer did not give Abbey Management the opportunity to address the complaint through its “exclusive remedy,” then chose to publicly disparage the company, they would be subject to legal action and a $350 fine.
Arthur was never provided a copy of that policy, Hill’s complaint alleged, nor did the email she received warn her of the consequences of posting a negative review. Thus, the state alleged Abbey Management’s policy was a violation of the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act and state sought to enjoin the company from “committing an unfair, abuse, or deceptive act, omission or practice in connection with a consumer transaction,” and from “maintaining any policy that contained terms that are oppressively one sided or harsh… .”
In a statement to RTV6, Szakaly said the policy was adopted in response to “social media blackmail,” or the process by which a guest would not lodge a complaint during their stay, yet would later complain on social media. His daughter, Amanda Sweet, assumed management of Abbey Inn in January 2017, but told RTV6 she plans to close the hotel and reopen under a new name.
As Hill’s lawsuit proceeds in Brown County court, he is urging consumers to take action if they believe they have been wrongfully penalized for posting a truthful review.
“People have the right to truthfully complain about bad service,” Hill said in a Wednesday statement. “They certainly should not be afraid they might be penalized for exercising this right. If you believe you have suffered retaliation or been threatened as a result of posting a truthful review, please contact our office and we will investigate your complaint.”
Complaints can be filed at www.indianaconsumer.com or by calling 1-800-382-5516.