Seeing yellow

Robert Dorrell, a part-time state-licensed massage therapist, says he has grown tired of fielding telephone calls from misguided--not to mention overexcited--prospective customers, who mistake his service for a massage parlor.

Typically, Dorrell says, the errant callers "ask me if I'm going to give them a hand job."

Dorrell is blaming Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages Inc. for confusing the line between his legitimate massage service and sexually oriented businesses. You might not be able to fight the phone company, but Dorrell is determined to make the Yellow Pages change its ways.

For the past two years, Dorrell, who also earns his living as a part-time carpenter, has waged a campaign to force Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages to police more effectively who advertises as massage therapists in the company's directories. Dorrell has filed complaints with the Texas Attorney General's Office, the Texas Department of Health, and a Dallas County small-claims court. Dorrell contends that the telephone-book company has allowed sexually oriented businesses to place advertisements right beside his and other legitimate massage-service companies' listings, thereby confusing prospective customers.

In his most recent complaint, filed last September in small-claims court, Dorrell has charged Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages with violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Act and seeks $4,425 in return for ad payments he made to the company.

And--as Yellow Pages sales reps like to say--he's been seeing results. Last month Judge Al Cercone denied Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages' request to dismiss Dorrell's case and set a trial date for June 2.

Dorrell's drawn-out battle with Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages began in 1993, after he began advertising his services in the company's directories.

"I had no idea," insists Dorrell, who can often be found in the afternoon rubbing tired customers' shoulders as they sit in the massage chair at the Whole Foods store on Greenville Avenue, "that I was going to be neighbors [in the listings] with sexually oriented businesses."

At first, he says, he tried to talk directly with the company about his concerns. A woman in the marketing department, he says, told him to place a larger ad as a way of showing prospective customers he was a legitimate masseur.

"Like a sucker I did," says Dorrell. But then he grew even more miffed when the company refused to take responsibility, he says, for the calls he kept receiving from people seeking sexual services because they had seen his ad near other businesses that promoted in their directory listings such features as 24-hour service, escorts, and modeling.

In 1994, Dorrell, who had received supportive letters from some half-dozen other frustrated massage therapists, wrote to the Department of Health and the attorney general to complain about Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages. "Some investigation is warranted," he stated in his letter to the two agencies.

But the state government workers provided the masseur no relief. They seemed to shift the blame for the suggestive ads from SWB to the people who placed them.

Becky Berryhill, the Department of Health's program director of the Massage Therapy Registration program (yes, there is such a thing), told Dorrell in a January 6, 1994, letter: "There is no way for the program to obtain information from SWB about the individual who placed the ads. Without such evidence, the program cannot pursue legal action against those people."

The Attorney General's Office sounded a similar note. "We regret to say that a settlement that is agreeable to both parties does not seem possible at this time," Kylee Martinez, in the office's consumer-protection division, wrote to Dorrell in a February 1994 letter.

For their part, Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages executives had, in their initial correspondence to the massage therapist, shown some sympathy for Dorrell's plight, but nevertheless made it clear that they had no real control over who advertised in the company's directories--even if the businesses might be illegal.

In a January 1994 letter, Susan Crawford, a senior paralegal at the company, told Dorrell, "Should a conviction or a violation come to our attention, we would certainly proceed appropriately. A determination regarding such activity would, of course, be a matter for the police and the courts."

A month later, Gary Hartman, the general counsel for Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages, spelled it out even more specifically for Dorrell. "If a complaint is received that an advertiser is not providing the services or products advertised, we will attempt to pursue that information. However, when an unlawful activity is alleged, you must be aware that it is our government authorities that are given the responsibility and commensurate powers to investigate," Hartman wrote, adding, "I do not know why you believe that my company, a publisher, possesses the wisdom, the capability, and most importantly, the authority to deal with these matters."

Dorrell, however, was not placated with the company's explanations.
By July 1994, Dorrell had reduced his own ad in the Yellow Pages to one line and he had begun to make plans to file his complaint in small-claims court.

When he filed his claim, the company responded by denying his allegations and noting that Dorrell had failed to offer specific violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Gerald Bright, an outside lawyer whom the company has hired to defend it against Dorrell's claims, says Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages executives do not want to comment on the case while litigation is pending.

But Dorrell wants to get the word out. "I don't want to be portrayed like I'm on the cross or anything," he says, "but I'm talking about taking responsibility here.


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