By: M.L. Stein
THREE SACRAMENTO (CALIF.) Union newsroom staffers who, along with the newspaper, are being sued by an alleged sexual harassment victim for revealing her identity seemingly must pay their own defense costs because of a quirk in timing.
The newspaper changed hands the day after publication of the story which is the focus of the suit.
Business developer Danny Benvenuti sold the Union to the Danel family, owners of the Herald Printing Co., on Oct. 30, 1992. Benvenuti reportedly let the Union’s insurance policy lapse before the sale and the current owners were not involved in the offending article.
Danel’s Enterprises Inc. was named a defendant in the original complaint, but the plaintiff’s attorney, Moseley C. Collins III, said he later dismissed the company from the suit “without prejudice.”
The plaintiff, who uses the fictitious name of “Jane Roe” in the lawsuit, charges Union editor Kenneth P. Harvey, former executive news editor Bryan Gardner and reporter Lawrence C. Irby with breaking a promise not to publish her name in return for granting an interview to Irby.
The 57-year-old woman, a Sacramento County deputy clerk, has accused county counsel Lee Elam of dropping a note on her desk that read: “Where are you? I want to rape you.”
Elam, who said the note was meant as a joke, was suspended for five days without pay and ordered to take a 5% salary cut.
The woman’s suit seeks unspecified exemplary and punitive damages under California law. The defendants are charged with acts described as “wilful [sic], despicable, wanton, malicious and constitute fraud and malice . . . “
Obtaining an interview by assuring the woman that her identity would be protected and then publishing it was “outrageous conduct and so extreme in degree as to go beyond the bounds of decency,” the complaint states.
According to the lawsuit, revealing the woman’s name in a Sacramento Union story resulted in her undergoing treatment by physicians, counselors and therapists and in being unable to return to work.
In an interview with E&P, Harvey acknowledged the woman was promised anonymity by Irby. He said the paper honored the agreement in three stories involving her accusation against Elam.
However, the Union printed her name when attorney Collins filed a claim for more than $10,000 against the county in connection with Elam’s alleged act.
“As far as we were concerned, the agreement was off,” Harvey said. “Collins held a press conference to announce the claim, and the woman’s name by that time was known all over the county building. Irby’s interview had nothing to do with the announcement. The situation had changed entirely.”
In the press conference, Collins identified his client as Cathy Rowe, not her real name, which was used eight times in the Union’s Oct. 29, 1992, story that bore Irby’s byline.
Collins rejected Harvey’s reasoning, saying: “A newspaper should keep its promises like anyone else. The reporter didn’t tell my client that he would keep her name out of the paper once, twice or three times. He said, ‘We will not print your name.’ “
The lawyer asserted that the Union was the only news medium that made his client’s true identity public.
Harvey said he has hired his own lawyer, adding, “I don’t see any other way to defend myself, and I don’t want to lose the suit by default. I have advised Irby to get counsel.”
He said that the Union’s legal insurance under Benvenuti’s ownership had expired before he sold the paper, and that the Danel family has no responsibility in the court action.