Google search/photo courtesy of Emrah Turudu

Pittsburgh personal injury law firm Friday & Cox is embroiled in a lawsuit with online legal marketing company FindLaw in which the firm alleges it was duped into paying nearly $300,000 for an “optimized” website and Facebook page that turned out to be anything but.

On Aug. 16, a federal judge granted FindLaw’s request to transfer the lawsuit from the Western District of Pennsylvania to the District of Minnesota based on the forum-selection clause in a series of contracts entered into by the parties.

Friday & Cox originally filed the complaint in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas against FindLaw, West Publishing Corp. and Reuters Holdings. The defendants removed the suit to the Western District on April 25.

The complaint alleged the defendants fraudulently induced Friday & Cox to enter into several contracts by promising that FindLaw would increase the firm’s online advertising and marketing and would optimize the firm’s website and Facebook page to attract more clients.

Instead, the complaint alleges, the website FindLaw created “was not properly optimized for anything relating to auto accidents, injuries and workers’ compensation cases in the Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania geographic areas.”

According to the complaint, the website was deficient in several respects, including a lack of the SEO elements and minimum words per page necessary to be indexed or ranked by Google and other search engines; a lack of geographic focus on western Pennsylvania, practice area specificity and keyword phrases such as “Pittsburgh personal injury lawyers”; and a blog that featured the same posts that appeared on hundreds of other FindLaw websites across the country.

Meanwhile, the FindLaw-created Facebook page garnered only 68 “likes,” according to the complaint.

Friday & Cox said in the complaint that it paid the defendants $297,202 between Aug. 26, 2010, and Oct. 24, 2017, at which point the firm stopped making payments.

“As a direct and proximate result of the fraud, misrepresentations, breaches of contract, breaches of both implied and express warranties, negligence, carelessness and recklessness of FindLaw, plaintiff sustained actual monetary damages, and has wasted money and time on FindLaw’s ineffective marketing and advertising services that could have been allocated to more productive business, advertising and/or marketing uses,” the complaint said.

The complaint includes claims for breach of contract, fraud, breach of warranty and violations of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

In May, the defendants responded with a motion seeking to either dismiss the lawsuit or, in the alternative, to transfer it to federal court in Minnesota, pointing to the forum-selection clause in the parties’ contracts.

Friday & Cox countered that the forum-selection clause was invalid because the defendants materially breached the contracts containing the clause.

In her Aug. 16 opinion, U.S. District Chief Judge Joy Flowers Conti of the Western District of Pennsylvania sided with the defendants and said transfer, rather than dismissal, was proper.

Conti said Friday & Cox “did not carry its burden to show that any forum-selection clause is invalid, i.e., it was the result of fraud or undue influence, it violated public policy, or its enforcement is so inconvenient that it deprives plaintiff of its day in court.”

Friday & Cox attorneys Joshua Licata and Peter Friday are representing their firm in the case. Licata declined to comment.

Counsel for the defendants, Danielle M. Vugrinovich of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Pittsburgh, also did not return a call seeking comment.

The Friday & Cox litigation is similar to another lawsuit filed against FindLaw and West Publishing by Dallas attorney Rogge Dunn this past spring.

Dunn, principal of litigation firm Rogge Dunn Group, alleged that he was duped into thinking FindLaw would create a unique website for his new law firm but instead provided one that was “cookie cutter” and “unimaginative.”

“FindLaw also promised to develop a unique and individually customized website for Dunn and his law firm, Rogge Dunn Group P.C.,” according to the petition Dunn filed in a Dallas County Court of Law in May. “The website that FindLaw gave to Dunn contained basic, unimaginative images and stock language. FindLaw uses a generic ‘cookie cutter’ approach for hundreds of attorneys nationwide. The website provided is anything but unique, or customized to Dunn’s law practice.”

Dunn also alleged in the lawsuit that once an attorney stops using FindLaw, the company “flips a switch” that essentially removes the benefit of the 12 months of search engine optimization (SEO) already paid for.

In July, West Publishing filed a motion to dismiss Dunn’s suit for failing to file it in Minnesota pursuant to the forum-selection clause.

As of press time Friday, a hearing on the motion was scheduled for Aug. 29.