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Judge OKs Suit by Spelling Alleging Nurse Broke Pact

April 18, 2006|Claire Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

TV producer Aaron Spelling can sue his former nurse for allegedly violating a confidentiality agreement, but a judge ruled Monday that he can't sue her on defamation grounds.

Spelling, 83, and his wife, Candy, 60, sued the nurse, Charlene Richards, accusing her of breaking the pact in which she agreed to protect the family's privacy by not revealing details to acquaintances. Richards, 56, later filed a sexual harassment suit against the producer that alleged he asked her to have sex with him and "dress like a hooker."

The Spellings' lawsuit has put a spotlight on the strict confidentiality agreements that are a way of life with celebrities and high-profile entertainment executives. Accountants, nannies, assistants and other employees are often asked to sign them.

In preparing her suit, Richards and her lawyer sent letters to more than 600 actresses as well as their agents and managers, asking whether Spelling had sexually harassed them. The letter, titled "Survey on sexual harassment by Aaron Spelling," included people who had worked with the producer on such hit TV series as "Charlie's Angels" and "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Spelling argued that the letter defamed him. But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Highberger ruled that Richards was within her right to pursue litigation when she sent the survey. Highberger dismissed the defamation portion of Spelling's suit, leaving the breach-of-contract accusation.

Spelling alleges that Richards talked to her boyfriend about the alleged harassment, which the producer said he did not recall. Richards' lawyer told the judge that many details about Spelling's life -- his love for his daughter, Tori, and the family dogs -- were common knowledge, but the judge said Spelling had a right to privacy.

"He wants a private home -- whether he eats Cheerios or Wheaties or oatmeal imported from Denmark on a supersonic jet," Highberger said.

The exact scope of confidentiality agreements -- and whether they conflict with the right of free speech -- has yet to be determined definitively by the courts, entertainment lawyer George Hedges said.

"Any celebrity will have confidentiality provisions for anyone working with them," said Hedges, adding that employees' right to free speech can limit the reach of the agreements. "The problem of course occurs when the 1st Amendment freedom of expression is raised -- there is a tension between that and the reasonable right of privacy that the celebrity has."

Lawyers for Spelling and Richards said they planned to appeal the judge's decision.

"Most people that work for celebrities understand the need for confidentiality," Spelling lawyer Robert F. Chapman said. "In this case, we have a person who wasn't willing to comply with the confidentiality requirements and that's why we have the lawsuit."

Countered Virginia Keeny, Richards' lawyer: "It makes no public policy sense to allow an employer to sue an employee for talking about unlawful conduct in the workplace. She should be able to talk about those issues with a friend, a family member, the press or a federal agency investigating the conduct."

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