Denver radio host Tom Martino is suing Golden-based HomeAdvisor, accusing the digital marketplace of committing copyright infringement by running search engine ads that reference Martino’s “referral list” of approved contractors.
Martino and his company, Troubleshooter Network Inc., filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver on Sept. 14, saying the ads run on Bing “willfully mislead and misdirect consumers searching the Internet for services provided by the Troubleshooter Network.”
HomeAdvisor declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Martino broadcasts his nationally syndicated radio show “The Troubleshooter Show” from Denver AM radio station KHOW. Martino bills himself as a consumer advocate, and the show features him interacting with callers who often describe problems with contractors.
Martino also has appeared on television, most recently for Denver’s KVDR Fox 31, and wrote columns for the Rocky Mountain News, which closed in 2009. His lawsuit said he is “famous in the Denver area.”
Troubleshooter Network Inc., which Martino owns, operates Referrallist.com, which the lawsuit describes as a “constantly changing list of businesses reviewed and approved by Mr. Martino.” The list is trademarked as Tom Martino’s Referral List, and has existed since approximately 2000, according to the lawsuit.
Businesses pay a yearly membership fee, averaging $4,800, to be included on the referral list, according to the lawsuit. The Referrallist website describes the list as paid advertising, but said “no members can ‘buy’ their way onto the list … unless they adhere to our strict code of ethics,” which includes letting Martino decide disputes between customers and the company.
Some businesses also pay for Martino’s endorsement, which can cost up to $250,000 a year for a regional company, according to the lawsuit.
Martino’s lawsuit against HomeAdvisor and parent company ANGI Homeservices refers to the two entities as “direct competitors” of Troubleshooter Network.
The lawsuit said that last month, Martino found that searches on Bing for “Tom Martino’s Referral List” and related terms prompt ads titled “Tom Martino Referral List” to appear at the top and bottom of the search engine result page. The ads lead to the homepage of HomeAdvisor, the lawsuit said.
Martino said the ads falsely suggest that he “has personally endorsed HomeAdvisor as a direct provider of his business referral services.”
Martino notes that HomeAdvisor is facing another lawsuit alleging that HomeAdvisor “engages in certain deceptive practices,” including charging companies “for substandard customer leads.”
In addition to trademark infringement, the lawsuit accuses the defendants of unfair competition and invasion of privacy, the latter a reference to the fact that Martino’s name was allegedly used without permission.
Martino is represented by Thomas P. Howard and James Juo of Louisville law firm Thomas P. Howard.
“It’s being implied that Mr. Martino is working together with HomeAdvisor, that they’ve teamed up, when they have not,” Howard said.
Martino is familiar with courtrooms.
In 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a slander lawsuit brought against Martino by an Oregon watercraft dealer angry that Martino told a caller, “They’re just lying to you” in reference to the company. The court said the comment was an opinion protected by the First Amendment.
In September 2011, Martino filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, claiming assets of $1.37 million and liabilities of $78.6 million, according to The Denver Post. Martino later sued Fox 31 for dropping him from his on-air role around the same time; that case was settled in 2014 for undisclosed terms.
Also in 2014, Martino pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace, pursuant to a one-year deferred judgment, in connection with an incident involving his wife; a separate assault charge was dismissed. The guilty plea was later vacated and the case was sealed, according to Martino’s defense attorney at the time.