A Superior Court Judge in Oakland has tentatively ruled that while the Berkeley Daily Planet is entitled to see some 17,000 Wal-Mart documents related to an employee lawsuit, the newspaper or its attorneys must pay $76,000 for the privilege of doing so.
The July 19 ruling by Judge Ronald Sabraw comes in a case in which the Daily Planet intervened as a third party in the Savaglio v. Wal-Mart lawsuit, involving plaintiffs who are seeking to recover lost wages from the retail giant store for more than 204,000 current and former employees.
The Daily Planet got involved solely for the purpose of unsealing documents which Wal-Mart had filed with the court.
“Before the Daily Planet intervened with a motion under the California Sealed Records Rules,” the newspaper’s attorney in the case, Suzanne Murphy of Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld of Alameda, wrote in an e-mail, “almost every document relating to the case ... was effectively ‘under seal.’ As a result of our efforts, over 17,000 pages of court records are now (or will be soon) available for inspection by the public both in the paper files and on the court’s domain website.”
Murphy said that she filed a motion with the court asking for Wal-Mart to pay the newspaper’s attorneys fees because “no media organization anywhere should have to spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to gain access to documents that unquestionably should have been available to the public for ... the actual cost of photocopying.”
Judge Sabraw disagreed.
In his tentative ruling, the judge said that the Daily Planet was not a successful party in the case or a “classical intervenor” who would qualify for attorneys fees, and that most of the thousands of pages of Wal-Mart documents that were unsealed by the newspaper’s actions “were of limited interest to the general public.”
The judge also tentatively ruled that the newspaper had a “private commercial interest in covering the underlying lawsuit in the newspaper. The Berkeley Daily Planet, like all newspapers, must expend funds to gain access to information. In this case, it appears that the Berkeley Daily Planet was sufficiently motivated by its own interests to seek to unseal the documents and does not need the incentive of the prospect of a fee award.”
Daily Planet Executive Editor Becky O’Malley said, “It is difficult to understand how the judge could tentatively rule that the documents were of limited interest to the general public, while simultaneously asserting that our newspaper could derive some financial benefit from distributing information to the public which the judge says the public doesn’t necessarily want.”
Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, said in a telephone interview in response to the ruling, “I think it’s essential that the Daily Planet not be penalized in this matter. If that persists, it will have a deleterious effect on all journalism, as well as on the rights of citizens to get a hearing without paying for it.”
No date has been set for Judge Sabraw’s final opinion. If that opinion does not change from the tentative ruling, Murphy says she plans to appeal.