On January 14, 2013, Andaleeb Geloo, a friendly and charismatic attorney at the Fairfax County Courthouse in Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C., got a shocking phone call from a recent client. Raised in the United States by immigrant parents from Pakistan, she had a stellar career and was well-liked by colleagues, who called her “Andi” and nicknamed her “the sweetheart of the courthouse.” She had graduated in the top 10 percent of her law school class at George Washington University in 2003 with high honors and academic awards, then launched a successful law firm.
But her client warned her that on a community website, FairfaxUnderground, anonymous users had posted vile, disparaging comments about Geloo’s sexuality, legal practice and physique, essentially “slut shaming” and “fat shaming” her. (Not that it mattered, but she was athletically fit.) The attorney initially ignored the warning. Then, days later, while representing clients at the Fairfax County Courthouse, she heard whispers about “the Geloo posts.” That night, she huddled over a computer and dared to open the FairfaxUnderground website. “I was compelled to look,” she says.
She was stunned by the vitriol hurled against her. About a week earlier, the client had written a favorable review about Geloo representing him well in court on a driving violation. About 20 minutes later, an anonymous writer using the ID “BEH” responded: “I hope you kill Andi and yourself in the fiery crash that you will inevitably cause.” Hours later, “Tea Baggins,” a sexual reference to a man putting his testicles into a sexual partner’s mouth, wrote, “This thread is useless without pictures of Andi.” The verbal assaults continued relentlessly for days.
User “Bang Bros,” using the name of a Miami-based porn film production company, chimed in, asking, “So … did you give Andi the old boosh kadoosh.” A user posted, “Andi Geloo — Bullshit Artist,” and “Andi Fan” responded to the “Tea Baggins” request for photos of Geloo, posting pictures of her from her Facebook page. An anonymous writer, calling her “a run of the mill court appointed attorney” accused her of writing her client’s positive review. (She hadn’t, and, in fact, didn’t advertise.) The conversation got slimier, with “fur” writing, “Andi Geloo equals FAT PAKI,” referencing a derogatory slur for Pakistanis. The poster “BS Detector” challenged Geloo’s trial expertise, adding, “Please post a picture of yourself from this week, including the full body.”
“Total Bullshit by Andi Geloo.” “Andi Geloo should be disbarred.” “Andi Geloo is a nut case who deserves to be outed [sic] . .. Whoever is [expletive]ing Andi Geloo must be doing it as a mercy case. LOL.” The obscene litany prompted Geloo to act.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, she became an accidental activist, investigating her anonymous “John Doe” antagonists and lobbying in the Virginia statehouse to expand a victim’s right to press charges. The resulting new state law—called “Andi’s Law,” by some—went into effect earlier this month in Virginia, with implications nationwide, as lawmakers in other states potentially expand the rights of plaintiffs against “John Doe” harassers on the Internet. The new “Andi’s Law” allows a plaintiff who has filed a timely lawsuit against a “John Doe” to motion the court to stop the clock, to give a plaintiff time to unmask a “John Doe.” Prior to this law, it was virtually impossible, at least in the case of anonymous bullying, to have a “cause of action,” which requires knowing the identity of a bully, within Virginia’s one-year statute of limitations for defamation.
“It’s new nationally. It will set precedent. Other states will recognize they have the same problem,” says Alan Cilman, an attorney in Fairfax. “John Doe” cyber bullies “try to ridicule and scorn and ruin reputations. And they’re doing it in a way that people can’t defend themselves. They are cowards. It’s always been a tough haul for women, and their cowardly tormenters should be held accountable.”
Often thought to be limited to children and teens, cyber-bullying is also an issue for adults. Last October, Pew Research Center released an exhaustive report on online bullying, finding 40 percent of Internet users had experienced some form of harassment online, and women had experienced the most severe form of harassment.
In the fall of 2014, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry stopped re-tweeting messages, saying, “Because I fear that I would send all of…the harassment that comes to me over to some person who doesn’t deserve it.” Soon after that, NPR’s Rachel Martin did a segment, “Why Women Get the Worst of Internet Bullying.” This past March, actress Ashley Judd tweeted that when she “expressed a stout opinion during #MarchMadness I am called a whore, c—, threatened with sexual violence. Not okay.” She said on MSNBC, “The way things happen on social media is so abusive and everyone needs to take personal responsibility for what they write.”
That month, Monica Lewinsky, shamed for her involvement with President Clinton, delivered a much-watched TED Talk, arguing, “Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop.”
Rather than take to the media to expose her bullies, however, Geloo took a methodical, lawyerly approach, contacting the administrator at FairfaxUnderground, Cary Wiedemann. He initially didn’t remove the postings but sent her the Internet Protocol addresses for the messages. Wiedemann said he deleted “many posts,” leaving “a few innocuous opinions.”
IP addresses are unique numbers associated with a computer. While users can mask IP addresses, they are a way to identify anonymous Internet users. That week, Geloo called legal experts who advised her that she would never learn the identities of her “John Doe” bullies or get the posts removed. One attorney told her, “Get over it. Get thicker skin.” Another later ridiculed her cause, stating that it was more appropriate for TMZ.
“I decided to take matters into my own hands,” Geloo says. She knew the clock was ticking on the one year plaintiffs have to file a defamation lawsuit. “I was tortured by it,” she says. She stayed up through the night and wrote up a 10-page lawsuit against Wiedemann and twelve “John Doe” defendants who had written negative comments on Fairfax Underground. She was seeking to unmask their identities. An attorney friend, Susan Earman, filed the lawsuit at Fairfax County Circuit Court, where Geloo practiced law. Eventually, Wiedemann agreed to remove the posts, and Geloo dropped him from the lawsuit.
Geloo filed “John Doe subpoenas” with the three telecommunications companies –Verizon Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc. – who were the Internet service providers for the IP addresses associated with the various “John Doe” comments. She wanted them to provide the real names of the “John Doe” harassers so she could file a defamation complaint against them within the one-year limit. The companies contacted the “John Doe” defendants and two of them hired local attorneys – anonymously. One of the defense firms was Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath and Judkins, based in Fairfax. The two “John Doe” attorneys filed motions to block Geloo from learning their clients’ names. The clock was still ticking on the statute of limitations. It wasn’t “tolled,” a legal term that means the clock is temporarily halted, while the decision to withhold or make public the real identity of the “John Doe” defendants was adjudicated. No other attorneys stepped forward to represent “John Doe” defendants.
One day, Geloo received correspondence from an insurance carrier, Allstate Corp. — a copy of a letter, dated Feb. 25, 2014, and addressed to a local attorney, Demetrious Pikrallidas. It concerned a claim Pikrallidas had filed, stating that he was one of the defendants in Geloo’s defamation lawsuit. (A receptionist at the firm of Pikrallidas directed questions to the firm of Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath and Judkins, the firm that was representing a “John Doe” in the Geloo case. There, an attorney representing Pikrallidas told Women in the World his client declined to comment. When Geloo filed a complaint with the Virginia State Bar, Pikrallidas responded, through another attorney, that that he considered Geloo’s allegations unfair, but he declined to comment to the state bar on whether he wrote any disparaging comments against Geloo).
Geloo hadn’t named anyone in her “John Doe” complaint, because she didn’t know any of the names of her anonymous bullies. Now, with this letter in her hand, she had made a significant breakthrough. To be sure, the letter didn’t confirm or deny that the lawyer was the one who actually wrote any of the messages, just that he was a defendant in the case, Geloo vs. John Does, et al. But she had just missed the one-year statute of limitations to file a lawsuit. As defense attorneys challenged the complaint, delaying it further in the court, the clock had expired.
On June 23, 2014 Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Robert J. Smith ruled against Geloo’s motion to have the telecommunication companies reveal the real identities of the “John Doe” defendants because “the statement at issue does not involve a criminal offense involving moral turpitude or a contagious disease,” nor did it “impliedly suggest” Geloo was “guilty of unethical or unprofessional conduct such as false advertising.” The telecommunication companies didn’t have to reveal the names of the “John Doe” bullies. Geloo had lost in court.
“I was offered a lot of money to settle and sign a non-disclosure agreement,” she says. “I felt taking their money with a deal to shut up, was ‘blood money.’ I felt I owed it to the bar to find out their names. Seriously, you can always make more money, but you can never get your life back.”
A few days later, an attorney passed Geloo in the halls of a local courthouse and said, “I heard you had a crush on me.” When she responded, confused, that she didn’t and that she was married, he answered, “Somebody has taken mercy on you.”
Geloo’s eyes widened. That was the same language used by one of her “John Doe” detractors. Geloo filed her subpoena request again. To her surprise, the “John Doe” attorneys didn’t file objections. Instead, she received a response from Verizon, dated Sept. 12, 2014. It named a local lawyer in Manassas, Va., Brian Patrick Roman, as the owner of the IP for one of the “John Doe” defendants. Geloo filed another complaint with the Virginia State Bar.
He was the lawyer who had spoken to Geloo in the halls of the courthouse, alleging she had a “crush.” Despite repeated efforts to contact Roman, he declined to comment for this article.
The Virginia Bar Association said it couldn’t release the results of Geloo’s complaints against the lawyers identified in the Verizon and Allstate letters. According to letters sent to Geloo, however, the state bar dismissed the complaints against the two attorneys, who denied they had acted improperly. Anastasia Billy, assistant bar counsel at the state bar association, wrote, that the “Virginia Rule of Professional Conduct” doesn’t cover a lawyer’s communications with another lawyer, but she stated, “The Virginia State Bar does not condone rude, unprofessional, or offensive behavior.” In a letter to the Virginia State Bar, Roman accused Geloo of “bizarre behavior,” revealing “confidential” information and leveling “false and malicious” charges against him. Armed with the Verizon information, Geloo might have filed a new lawsuit. But, again, the statute of limitations had elapsed.
There was one thing to do, she concluded. Change the law. She drafted House Bill 1635 to allow a defamation lawsuit against a “John Doe” to “toll,” or stop the clock, for a reasonable amount of time to discover the real identity of a “John Doe.” A colleague in the Virginia state legislature, Del. David B. Albo (R-Dist. 42), introduced the legislation, which passed the Virginia state legislature this spring.
Says Albo, “The way America works, you get your opportunity to be heard. Andi was unable to get into court to state her case. It was literally impossible for her to get the names of these people who were hiding like cowards behind anonymous Internet identities. There was a problem with the law, and we had to fix it.” He noted that when defamation laws were first written, “the Internet didn’t exist, with its capacity for anonymous identities. We need to update the law to match the situation in 2015.”
“Publicity was something I never sought,” said Geloo. “In fact, I cherish my privacy. But when you are bullied and attacked this viciously by people you hardly know—your own colleagues—you have to take a stand. Lawyers should not engage in such unprofessional conduct in public or anonymously. It brings disgrace to our profession. My lawsuit was filed to protect my practice and me, but also to protect the members of the bar from such disgrace, not for self-aggrandizement.”
Her legal victory may not mitigate the discomfort she feels when she comes into contact with the alleged bullies in question.
“When I see the attorneys, I feel anxiety because one attorney taunted me when I saw him, and I feel disappointment because I referred cases to the other attorney’s firm. I had always been kind to both,” Geloo says.
Nonetheless, she is satisfied. “I accomplished what I set out to do,” she says. “I won.”