Daniel Levine paid $5,000 to the dating service Master Matchmakers to help him find true love. Now, instead of a soul mate, he has a sworn enemy in the form of the company's chief executive, Steven Ward.
After speaking with them both, I'm not hopeful this relationship can be saved. But there are still lessons to be learned for the rest of us.
FOR THE RECORD
May 11, 2017: This column advised consumers to watch for provisions in contracts that limit the ability to resolve disputes, such as language that prevents suing or joining class-action lawsuits. The company in the column, Master Matchmakers, did not include a class-action waiver in its contract, though it did include limits on damages that may be recovered. Also, the column said that after customer Daniel Levine posted negative reviews on Google and Yelp, Master Matchmakers CEO Steven Ward responded by posting a review of Levine on the Yelp page for Levine's employer, Top Dog Solutions. That company lists Levine as vice president of operations and his father as president and chief executive.
Levine's and Ward's spat illustrates the frequently toxic nature of negative online reviews, especially for small businesses, as well as the danger of cyberbullying in the form of retaliatory posts from businesspeople who feel they were unfairly criticized.
It also highlights so-called non-disparagement clauses — provisions that increasingly cropped up in consumer contracts in recent years that forbid people from saying bad things about a company, including on review sites such as Yelp.
"Companies that try to include these clauses in their terms are predicting that their customers will be unhappy and will bad-mouth their services," said Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group. "They should instead focus on making sure consumers are satisfied with their services."
As of this week, Master Matchmakers had such a clause in its terms of service, leaving Levine with the impression that he could be targeted with a lawsuit for breach of contract.
"It's been very stressful," he told me. "I don't want to be sued. But I feel like if I let them push me around, they'll just get away with doing it to others."
Ward, for his part, countered that "if we caved every time someone threatened to bad-mouth our business, we wouldn't be in business."
"I'm the victim here," he insisted.
As it happens, a new federal law, the Consumer Review Fairness Act, took effect last month. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it "protects people's ability to share their honest opinions about a business's products, services, or conduct, in any forum, including social media."
In other words, a company can't stop you from expressing yourself on Yelp or any other venue.
But there are gray areas. For example, the law doesn't give carte blanche to post opinions that are harassing or abusive in nature, or that are "clearly false or misleading."
The FTC says the "wisest policy" for businesses is to "let people speak honestly about your products and their experience with your company."
Levine, 37, told me he wanted to find a woman who's Jewish, politically liberal, college-educated, cute and preferably not taller than him (he's 5 foot 8). She also should live near Boston, where he works for a software company.
He said he decided to splurge on Florida-based Master Matchmakers because he knew he was being picky and figured a professional cupid might be able to expedite the process.
The first woman Levine was introduced to last summer lived in New York, not Boston, so that was a thing. He said the second woman he met, several months later, was "very politically conservative."
A third woman who never got beyond the phone-call stage was conservative and didn't have a college degree. A fourth match proposed by Ward wasn't Jewish.
Levine had reason to think he wasn't getting his money's worth.
Ward told Levine by email that he could be in for a long wait for l'amour if he didn't display some flexibility, particularly on the question of height. Nearly all his female clients prefer a man taller than 5 foot 9, he said.
Levine responded by hiring a lawyer and demanding a refund of his five thousand bucks.
"I would have walked away with even a partial refund," he said. "But Ward just wasn't willing to negotiate."
Levine also turned to Google and Yelp. He posted reviews saying that Master Matchmakers "takes advantage of people, offering a service they do not perform."
Ward responded by posting a review of Levine on the Yelp page for Levine's employer. It accused Levine of being "an unscrupulous businessperson" who has "maligned my business for personal gain just to extort money from me."
This is what's known as irreconcilable differences.
Online reviews are blunt instruments, and businesses would be smart to do everything possible to avoid bad customer experiences.
I'm not telling Ward how he should run his company, but I'm figuring it's cheaper over the long haul to offer a partial refund to anyone who looks like they're going to be impossible to please — especially when that person doesn't hesitate to lawyer up.
Meanwhile, Ward took a big risk by including a non-disparagement clause in his contract even as the Consumer Review Fairness Act came into force. Prior to the new law, he was just being sneaky and unfair, preventing clients from criticizing him or his firm. Now he faces a possibility of financial penalties.
He also did himself no favors by publicly attacking the integrity of a client. Master Matchmakers' contract says the client can get all his or her money back if the company engages in "willful misconduct."
I'm no lawyer, but Ward seems to have nudged right up against that line by impugning Levine's business ethics and accusing him of extortion.
If nothing else, this whole sorry mess drives home the importance of reading contracts and fine print. I know, I know: Nobody does this. Levine admitted he didn't read the contract when he signed up for Master Matchmakers.
But taking a little extra time to see what you're agreeing to can avoid trouble down the road. If you see a non-disparagement clause, walk away. That company may be a lawbreaker. Also watch for provisions that limit your ability to resolve disputes, such as language that prevents you from suing or joining class-action lawsuits.
And above all, remember that dating services aren't for everyone. Some matchmakers may not always have the magic touch, while people who are rigid about their romantic expectations probably will be frustrated.
Daniel, Steve — get over here you two. Let's hug it out.