As Sex Accusations Flood Social Media, Lawyers Gear Up for Suits

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SAN FRANCISCO — Social media has overflowed with sexual misconduct allegations during the last few weeks. The 450-word post that Melanie Kohler put on Facebook probably had the shortest life — a few hours. It may also have been the first to get its author sued.

As the torrent of accusations continues, it is unlikely to be the last.

“The lid is off,” said Mark G. Clark, a Michigan lawyer specializing in online defamation cases. “Power to the people. Anyone can have their grievance heard. But at the same time, anyone can be irresponsible and malicious.”

He noted that Facebook and Twitter see themselves as neutral platforms that cannot take a side in disputes. So the aggrieved call lawyers. “We get inquiries daily: ‘I’ve been defamed online. What can you do to help?’” Mr. Clark said.

Ms. Kohler, who runs a scuba diving company in Hawaii with her husband, had both narrow and far-reaching goals when she wrote her Facebook post on Oct. 18.

She wanted to unburden herself of something horrible that she said had happened to her, something that she had never told a single soul before that morning. Describing a drunken night about a decade ago, she wrote about Brett Ratner, a Hollywood producer and director.

“Brett Ratner raped me,” Ms. Kohler wrote on Facebook. “I’m saying his name, I’m saying it publicly.”

She was inspired by the national uproar over sexual harassment, but did not really think about joining that larger conversation. The post was intended for her family and friends, and they responded immediately. “I was feeling really loved and supported,” Ms. Kohler said in an interview.

But such is the nature of Facebook that others quickly read it as well, including an associate of Mr. Ratner’s. His attorney, Martin Singer, called before lunch. “I was totally caught off guard,” Ms. Kohler said.

Accounts of what happened next differ. Mr. Singer said that he had spoken to Ms. Kohler “in a cordial, nonthreatening tone” and that she had agreed that the post was fabricated. Ms. Kohler denied saying that, but said she had been so intimidated by the lawyer that she removed the post.

That, Mr. Ratner concluded, was not enough.

This week, even as accusations against the director alleging sexual harassment and misconduct were being published by The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, Mr. Ratner sued Ms. Kohler for defamation. He said that her post was “entirely false, fabricated and fictional,” and that it had hurt his professional standing and caused “emotional distress.” Through a spokesman, the director declined to comment.

“I’m in a world I never thought I’d be in,” Ms. Kohler, 39, said. “If he wins, I don’t know what he thinks he’s going to get from me.”

She has high-powered help. Her attorney, Roberta Kaplan, is best known for representing Edith Windsor in the landmark 2013 Supreme Court case that forced the government to recognize same-sex marriages.

Ms. Kohler wrote in the Facebook post that the incident happened in 2004 or 2005, but now says it happened a few years later. At the time, she was doing marketing for a now-defunct start-up energy drink in Los Angeles. She said she had met Mr. Ratner at a club and had gone with him to his friend’s house.

“He forced himself on me after I said no and no and no again,” she wrote in the Facebook post, which was reviewed by The New York Times.

“There were only two people there, Brett Ratner and Melanie,” Ms. Kaplan said. “No other witnesses. One is telling the truth, and one is not. So the question is, why is Melanie going to come out with it now, other than with the goal she has — to help other women, and to make sure Brett Ratner or anyone else is unable to do this again?”

Mr. Ratner’s suit may not only be the first; it might also be something of a test case for the whole concept of pushing back in court. To the extent the suit draws attention to accusations that might have gotten little publicity without corroboration, it may backfire on the director and set a precedent that others are reluctant to emulate.

Mr. Singer explained in an interview last week, before the suit was filed, how he policed the internet on behalf of Hollywood stars.

“I have hundreds of high-profile clients,” he said. He did not name any, but they include Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Travolta, Charlie Sheen and, for a time, Bill Cosby.

“People write bad things about them all the time on social media,” Mr. Singer said. “You have to figure out when to deal with it and when not to deal with it.”

Two-thirds or three-quarters of the time, he said, he asks someone to take something down and they don’t. “I reach out, they give me the finger” he said, and “say, ‘I’m not doing anything.’”

“They make it a bigger story,” he continued. “We write websites a letter, and then they post that letter,” as a sort of thumbing of the nose.

It’s impossible to tell how many cease-and-desist or so-called demand letters are being issued now, although noses are being thumbed as readily as ever.

Yashar Ali, a contributor to HuffPost who was pursuing a sexual misconduct story, got a warning from a lawyer. The lawyer said that his client was innocent of any allegations and that the letter “may not be printed or published without my prior written consent.” Mr. Ali gleefully posted the letter on Twitter, although he blacked out the names first.

When Mr. Singer was interviewed, little had been published about Mr. Ratner, who is probably best known for the “Rush Hour” buddy cop movies. But Twitter was bubbling with anonymous secondhand allegations of unsavory behavior.

Mr. Singer dismissed such posts as beneath his attention. “Anonymous postings, that’s a problem forever. People hide themselves all the time,” he said. “There’s a lot of nut cases out there.”

That’s the fear among actors who said they had done nothing wrong but had gotten on the wrong side of a few of their fans. One actor, who was criticized on Twitter by an anonymous account for being overfriendly with female fans, responded with a tweet about bringing in lawyers. He now regrets drawing any attention.

“‘I didn’t do it’ is the exact same answer an innocent person would give as well as a guilty person,” he wrote in an email. “Nobody has time for a judge or a jury, just an accuser and an executioner.” He asked to remain anonymous because, he said, it would end his career if he publicly spoke up.

Mr. Singer said he wasn’t sure the downfall of the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein had made a difference in the volume of assertions by victims.

“We were dealing with this back in the MySpace days” more than a decade ago, he said. But he added: “Do I think people may be more emboldened? Yes, they may.”

Other lawyers said that, at least for the moment, the landscape had changed significantly.

“There is less fear in making these assertions in various arenas, whether it’s through traditional media, social media or privately,” said Miles Feldman of the Los Angeles law firm Raines Feldman, which handles dozens of online defamation cases a year. “As a result, we’re seeing a serious uptick in inquiries and requests for action.”

But that is true of the victims as well, suggesting that all sorts of lawyers will be busy in the years to come.

Debra Katz, a Washington-based specialist in harassment and employment discrimination, acknowledged the appeal of taking complaints online.

“It’s a sweeter form of justice to out someone as a sexual harasser in a Facebook post than go through a lengthy, painful and expensive trial,” she said. Nevertheless, “there’s not a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases whose phone is not ringing off the hook.”