Miami Plastic Surgeon Takes Action Against Patients Who Left Negative Online Reviews

Two Florida women signed an agreement before the plastic surgery procedures that prevented them from leaving any negative comments anywhere online

Nicole George saved up money for three years to have a "mommy makeover."

She used online reviews to help find a plastic surgeon.

"It's good to know from the patients themselves what their experience was," George said. "Ratings are very important."

The mother from the Fort Myers area is now questioning the accuracy of those online reviews.

Positive reviews led her to the Miami office of Dr. Leonard Hochstein. He's a surgeon to the stars and appeared on the reality TV show "The Real Housewives of Miami."

"He's known as the 'Boob God,'" George said.

However, after her surgery in May of 2018, George says she wasn't happy with her results or with the doctor's customer service.

"I really do feel I wasn't taken care of in the best manner," she said.

She decided to go back to where she started, online reviews, to write a review about her experience.

Months later, she received something in writing herself – a lawsuit. Dr. Hochstein is suing her claiming her comments are not accurate.

She's not alone. The doctor is suing another Florida mother, Kristen L., after she wrote negative reviews about her experience.

"I didn't have a choice, this is the last thing you want to do," said Dr. Hochstein.

He says he decided to take action as a last resort to protect himself from what he calls inaccurate reviews.

"All I ever wanted was for people to be honest," he said.

The NBC 6 Investigators found both women signed a document that prevented them from leaving any negative comments anywhere online, even though there's a law preventing it.

Use Caution When Signing Documents

Before being taken into surgery, both women signed multiple documents with the plastic surgeon's office. Included in those documents was a non-disparagement agreement. The agreement states the patient is not allowed to post "negative reviews or disparaging comments or statements about Dr. Leonard Hochstein or his employees." The agreement also states the patient agrees to pay $25,000 in damages for each negative statement.

"I put my name on the document because I thought it was standard for all plastic surgeons," George said.

The Chair of Florida's Board of Medicine says he's never heard of the agreement being used by a plastic surgeon in Florida.

"I can see why a doctor might want to do that, especially if they've had a lot of negative reviews, but I haven't heard of that happening," said Dr. Steven Rosenberg.

But the Federal Trade Commission says it is happening at businesses across the country even though there's a federal law prohibiting it.

"They're using these agreements as gag clauses to keep people from learning negative information about the company," said Carl Settlemyer with the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Congress passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act in December 2016, making it illegal to prevent someone from giving an honest review or punishing them for it.

The patients signed the documents after the law went into effect. Dr. Hochstein says he stopped using the agreement in late 2018 when he learned of the law. The law does not prevent him from suing the patients in civil court.

Doctor Says 'Fake' Reviews Forced Him to Take Action

Dr. Hochstein says he has dealt with inaccurate reviews for years and decided to do something to protect his reputation with new patients.

His attorney crafted the non-disparagement agreement in 2016 after he says a former patient threatened to write negative reviews if the doctor didn't refund their money and after another patient posted a fake "after" picture on social media.

"My reputation is the most important thing to me. My patients come to me strictly through word of mouth," Dr. Hochstein said. "You want to defend yourself against things that you know didn't happen."

The doctor says his popularity has also led to people he never treated writing personal opinions and negative reviews.

"There are people who don't like me, don't like what I've said publicly, and they'll write a review for that," he said. "It's very rare to find someone who gives an honest opinion. Often times, negative reviews discuss things that never occurred and scenarios that would never happen."

For example, he claims one of the patient's he's suing, Kristen, wrote numerous inaccurate reviews from more than a dozen accounts that she and her husband created.

"They lied, misrepresented and made up multiple fake name to try and go after me," Dr. Hochstein said.

Kristen told the NBC 6 Investigators she wrote about a half dozen reviews on multiple sites about her experience. She says she has since removed some of them from the review sites but not others.

"I'm hoping this will help bring awareness to other women," Kristen said.

Reviewing Your Reviews

The Federal Trade Commission says consumers shouldn't be afraid to post reviews online as long as they're truthful.

"Use common sense," Settlemyer said. "If you're going to leave an online review, be honest and fair and don't be afraid to speak your mind."

The FTC also recommends using a critical eye when reviewing reviews.

"Try to look at a big number of reviews and a good cross-section of reviews and you'll get a sense of what types of things the reviewers are focusing on," Settlemyer said.

He also says the law protects business owners from people who aren't being truthful. Consumers and business owners can both file complaints with the FTC if they think they're being targeted unfairly by inaccurate complaints.

The FTC has taken action against two companies over the past two years for using non-disparagement agreements with consumers who were buying products or services.

What Happens Next

It's now up to a Miami-Dade judge to decide if the reviews the patients posted were accurate or not.

Dr. Hochstein says he's moving forward with both cases.

"Be honest, tell the truth," he said. "There's nothing wrong with saying 'I didn't like my surgery, I didn't like how it went' and just stop there, don't make things up."

The two patients say they're reluctant to remove reviews because they want other people to have access to what they say is the truth.

"If you can't give a real honest review, negative or positive, what kind of practice are you?" George asked.

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