DoNotPay Inc., a San Francisco-based company started to fight parking tickets by using artificial intelligence and automated processes, has been sued for the unauthorized practice of law.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court, Jonathan Faridian of Yolo County seeks damages for alleged violations of California’s unfair competition law, alleging that he would not have subscribed if he knew that the “World’s First Robot Lawyer,” as the company calls itself, was not actually a lawyer.
Faridian requests the court to certify a class of all people who have purchased a subscription to DoNotPay’s service.
DoNotPay was founded in 2016 by a Stanford University undergraduate named Joshua Browder who has managed in his short career to garner an extraordinary amount of media attention.
The book “System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot,” written by three Stanford professors, begins with a description of Browder.
“Joshua Browder,” it says, “entered Stanford as a young, brilliant undergraduate in 2015. His Wikipedia page describes him as a “British-American entrepreneur and he’s already been named to Forbes magazine’s ’30 Under 30′ list.”
The book reports that in the first three months of his freshman year, Browder programmed a chatbot to help people challenge parking tickets, and by 2016 he was CEO of DoNotPay and bragging that the company successfully challenged 160,000 tickets, saving clients $4 million.
The professors quote Browder saying, “I would like to hopefully replace lawyers with technology” and they say his long-term vision is “that you’ll never need a trained, human lawyer again.”
While the professors might have celebrated the accomplishments of a Stanford student, they said his story is “exactly the type of story … that gives us pause.”
The professors say that Browder is “not a bad person. He just lives in a world where it is normal not to think twice about how new technology companies could create harmful effects.”
While they note that many people do not like the legal profession, they ask rhetorically, “do we really want to live in a society where people can sue at the push of a button?”
The class action does not fault DoNotPay’s service on philosophical grounds; the plaintiff’s lawyer Jay Edelson says that the problem with DoNotPay is that it “DoesNotWork.”
The complaint alleges that Faridian subscribed to DoNotPay and used the service to perform a variety of legal services on his behalf. For example, he used DoNotPay to “draft demand letters, an independent contractor agreement, a small claims court filing, two LLC operating agreements, and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission job discrimination complaint.”
While Faridian stops short of saying that he thought the World’s First Robot Lawyer was literally a lawyer, he says he “believed he was purchasing legal documents and services that would be fit for use from a lawyer that was competent to provide them.”
He alleges that the services he received were “substandard and poorly done.”
In one case, he alleges that a demand letter prepared by the service was not delivered to its recipient. When Faridian opened it, he allegedly found it to be an otherwise-blank piece of paper with his name printed on it.
According to the complaint, “DoNotPay is merely a website with a repository of — unfortunately, substandard — legal documents that at best fills in a legal adlib based on information input by customers.”
Faridian says that he “would not have paid to use DoNotPay’s services had he known that DoNotPay was not actually a lawyer.”
The Education section of Faridian’s LinkedIn profile on Wednesday appeared to show that he holds a “Doctor of Law (J.D.),” from American Heritage University School of Law and Public Policy.
However, in responding to an inquiry, Edelson explained, “Jon is not a lawyer and has never held himself out as such. As his LinkedIn profile explained, he took classes in pursuit of a JD at American Heritage. We agree that the profile could have been clearer and Jon has updated it.”
The lawsuit alleges that DoNotPay violates California’s unfair competition law, which among other things, bars a business from any “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice” and from “deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising.”
Faridian argues that DoNotPay is engaging in an unlawful practice because a California law provides that “No person shall practice law in California unless the person is an active licensee of the State Bar.”
According to Faridian, “Providing legal services to the public, without being a lawyer or even supervised by a lawyer is reckless and dangerous. And it has real world consequences for the customers it hurts.”
Browder’s Twitter feed features a quote calling him the “Robin Hood of the Internet,” and he portrays the company as leveling the playing field for consumers who are being taken advantage of by big corporations.
The company’s website also reports that “DoNotPay has been awarded the 2020 Louis M. Brown Award by the American Bar Association for its ‘commitment to increasing legal services to those of modest means.’”
Browder recently garnered media attention by claiming on Twitter that “For the first time ever, a robot will represent someone in a US courtroom.”
The plan was that one of the parties to an actual court case would go to court wearing a pair of glasses with a microphone connected to a chatbot that would tell him or her what to say to the judge.
Browder later backed off from the plan, explaining on Twitter, “after receiving threats from State Bar prosecutors, it seems likely they will put me in jail for 6 months if I follow through with bringing a robot lawyer into a physical courtroom. DoNotPay is postponing our court case.”
A text message request to Browder requesting comment on the new lawsuit was quickly returned with a text attributed to a “DoNotPay spokeswoman.”
The text stated, “DoNotPay denies the false allegations. It is unsurprising that a lawyer who has made hundreds of millions is suing an A.I service that costs $18 for ‘unauthorized practice of law.’ We look forward to defending ourselves in court.”
Edelson reacted to that quote by stating that DoNotWork is “basically a scam led by a modern day carnival barker. Everything Josh says publicly, whether about our firm, or others who have called him out is simply noise. It might get him some twitter traffic but it will not be helpful in a court of law.”
Bay City News asked Browder if DoNotPay would be represented by actual lawyers in the class action lawsuit or if it would rely on its chatbot