MIDTOWN — The owner of an English-as-a-second language school is suing the workplace review website Glassdoor, demanding that it reveal the writers of several negative reviews that called the school a "scam" and accused management of discrimination.
Zoilo Nieto, the owner of a chain of language centers in the city and beyond, is demanding that Glassdoor hand over the identities of the writers behind 14 negative reviews, saying they're the "malicious" work of competing ESL companies that are determined to ruin his business, according to a complaint filed Oct. 7 in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Zoni Language Centers — headquartered at 22 W. 34th St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, with locations in Queens, New Jersey, and Florida, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom — offers ESL tutoring and housing to adult students, according to its website.
The reviews, which appeared on Glassdoor between June 18, 2014 and April 11, 2016, accuse Nieto and his staff of running a “scam,” underpaying employees, and discriminating in favor of Colombian managers and employees, the suit says.
The comments have hurt business, Zoni's ability to attract new employees, and have exposed the company to "ridicule and contempt," Nieto writes in the court filing. Nieto’s goal is to identify the posters, have the "false" reviews removed from Glassdoor, and potentially sue the posters for defamation, he said.
One review, posted Dec. 6, 2015 by someone claiming to be a Zoni employee, reads, “This world is full of evil people. This job well [sic] show you how evil walks in all shapes and sizes.”
Several posters accused school management of being racist, speaking only in Spanish in order to “keep students in the dark,” and running the school as a “scam” that targets people who need to improve their English for visa and immigration purposes.
According to one review by someone claiming to be a former employee, Zoni is a “meaningless place.”
The complaint asks that a judge order Glassdoor to turn over names, addresses, internet protocol addresses, email addresses, usernames, and other information that could identify the reviewers.
"They're calling us racists, they're calling us criminals," he said. "That has nothing to do with who we are or what we do."
Nieto said he suspects that one or more of the anonymous reviews were posted by an owner of another ESL school that's resorting to dirty tricks to win a competitive edge.
Nieto acknowledged that some of the negative reviews could be from actual former employees, however the petition states in clear terms that the 14 reviews — which make up every negative review of the school on Glassdoor — are false and defamatory.
This is not the first time Glassdoor has caught legal flak from spurned workplaces, and the website has previously dug in its heels when employers demanded information of users, according to news reports.
Samantha Zupan, a spokeswoman for Glassdoor, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company had not yet been served. But she assured that Glassdoor is dedicated to protecting the privacy of its users.
“It is Glassdoor’s standard practice to fight on our users’ behalf — in court and elsewhere — to protect their anonymity and rights to speak freely about their opinions and experiences at work,” Zupan said in an email.
Zoni's lawsuit is not accusing Glassdoor of defamation, but Nieto said that in addition to uncovering the identities of the "false" reviews he hopes that the lawsuit might prompt Glassdoor to take steps to make it more difficult for anyone with a grudge or a competing business to leave a bad review.
"The court has to find the line in what is fair between what is privacy and what is someone's ability to go and falsify information," he said. "We only have one course of action, which is the court."
But to Glassdoor, the privacy of its users is the key to their ability to post honest reviews. In a statement to the legal blog Above the Law regarding a separate case earlier this year, the company's vice president Dawn Lyon said the ability to review companies anonymously is important both to the service they provide and to the users' First Amendment rights.
"I can tell you that Glassdoor fundamentally believes our users have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to share their opinions about their jobs and work environments without fear of retaliation," Lyon said. "This level of transparency empowers people to make more informed decisions about where they choose to work, and it also helps employers attract the right candidates for their culture and company."