BROWN COUNTY, Ind.— In newly filed court documents, the former operator of an Indiana hotel criticized a former customer who complained to the Attorney General, saying she suffers from “a substantial credibility problem.”
Andrew Szakaly, the former operator of Abbey Inn and president of Abbey Management who has faced national attention, filed a motion to dismiss in Brown County Circuit Court on January 2.
The Indiana Attorney General’s office filed suit against Abbey Management on Dec. 15, alleging the hotel violated Indiana’s Deceptive Consumer Sales Act by enforcing a customer review policy that was “unfair, abusive, and deceptive.”
The policy allowed the Abbey Inn to charge customers for writing negative reviews, according to the Attorney General.
The Attorney General’s lawsuit stems from a consumer complaint from Greene County resident Katrina Arthur, who said she was charged $350 after leaving a negative review.
In court documents filed Jan. 2, Szakaly said Arthur “has trouble telling the truth and paying her bills” and pointed to Arthur’s financial problems, including judgments and personal bankruptcy.
“She has left local small businesses holding the bag for $4,596.52 in unpaid bills resulting in 5 different lawsuits,” read the Jan. 2 motion to dismiss. “Ms. Arthur, and others like her, cost all honest consumers money by forcing small businesses to raise their prices for rooms & services as a result of similar actions by a few ‘bad apples.’ Meanwhile, during the past 17 years the Abbey Inn has paid substantial sums in state and local taxes as well as to local workers and small businesses.”
Arthur told reporters on Dec. 18 that she and her husband are both employed as custodians.
Szakaly’s term as Brown County’s chief deputy prosecutor ended on Dec. 31.
Szakaly also alleged Katrina Arthur was aware of the Abbey Inn policy regarding online criticism, despite her assertions she did not know about it.
“When she booked her room at the Inn online, she agreed that she had read and agreed to that policy,” the motion alleged. “Then, when she arrived at the Inn, she signed the registration card given to her by the on-duty staff person, again confirming that she agreed to the Abby Inn policies. Only after leaving the Inn without making any complaints, did she demand a refund and then posted the damaging, false, on-line review.”
Calls made to Arthur were not returned.
Szakaly also said the Attorney General doesn't have the authority to request relief from the court, and alleged the state is restricting the inn’s right to free speech.
He asked the court to dismiss the Attorney General’s lawsuit.
“The complaint filed in this matter has no basis in Indiana law; attempts to restrict the ability of the defendant to contract with its guests with regard to conditions of their business relationship; and is based on a single witness’s false statements,” the motion read.
Szakaly said the lawsuit and Arthur’s “inaccuracies” have led to death threats against the new management.
Szakaly’s daughter, Amanda Sweet, took over the inn’s operations in January 2017.
“The Attorney General did know that the policy he complains about was no longer in use by Fall 2016,” read the motion to dismiss. “He also knows that new management has been operating the Inn since January 2017. He has been unable to point to any Indiana law which prohibited this type of agreement when Katrina Arthur agreed to it in March 2016.”
Last month, Skazkaly told reporters he put the complaint policy in place for a reason.
“Several years ago the Inn began to experience what has become known in the hospitality industry as ‘social media blackmail,” read the statement. “A guest would complete their stay, leave without making any complaints regarding their stay, then later demand a refund or they would post negative comments regarding the Inn on social media. In an attempt to meet the guest's needs while protecting itself from false reviews, the Inn, between Fall 2015 and Summer 2016, required prospective guests to confirm they had read the Inn's ‘complaint policy’ (published on the Inn's website & repeated on the online booking site) when they booked online and when they arrived for their stay.”
Szakaly said the policy, which ended in the summer of 2016, requested guests notify the Inn staff of any problems during the guest’s stay and allow the staff to address the problem.
“If the guest could not find a staff person, the guest was also given a phone number to call to report any problems,” said Szakaly in a statement. “Should the guest fail to do so during their stay, and later published a false statement regarding the Inn and failed to remove the false statement after a request to do so, that guest authorized Abbey Management Inc. to charge that guest no more than $350 as ‘liquidated damages’ for their published false statement.”
Sweet is in the process of buying the hotel from her father.
"We (the Abbey Inn) acknowledge and accept responsibility for the negative experiences guests had at the Abbey Inn in 2016,” read a statement from Sweet provided. “We were not the managers of the inn at that time and do not support a policy of charging guests for writing negative reviews of our business. While we have several negative reviews online, including on Google and Trip Advisor, we are addressing the concerns of past guests and apologize for their unfortunate experience.”
Sweet says the backlash has been so strong, she plans to close the hotel and reopen under a new name.
The Indiana Attorney General is asking anyone who believes they may have been penalized for posting truthful reviews online to contact his office by going online to indianaconsumer.com or by calling 1-800-382-5516.