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Secrecy of civil suit against Sharon Stone raises questions

Public records advocates are alarmed that a judge agreed to shield every aspect of the case -- including its very existence -- raising the possibility of other secret cases.

April 24, 2009|Harriet Ryan

After "Basic Instinct," what could Sharon Stone possibly have to hide? The details of a lawsuit filed against her by a former attorney, it seems.

In a move experts called exceedingly rare, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge agreed to shield every aspect of the case -- including its very existence -- from public view last year at the request of lawyers for the actress and her courtroom adversary.

Stone's case wound its way through the courthouse from an initial complaint to the filing of motions to an apparent settlement veiled in the type of court secrecy normally associated with issues of national security. Even in the county database used daily by judges, attorneys and court employees, a search for the case number -- BC401507 -- still returns the message "No match found."

The case came to The Times' attention this week after a reporter from another media organization described how he had happened upon a hearing on the matter months earlier. After reporters asked to see the file, Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis released two pages -- an order sealing the record and a photocopy of what appeared to be a law-firm mailing label marked "CONDITIONALLY UNDER SEAL."

The disclosure of the case alarmed public records advocates who said the "supersealing" -- or complete removal of a case from the docket -- defied the public's right to an open court and raised the possibility of other secret cases involving high-profile individuals.

"It's not that we need to know what happens in every one of these cases. It's that we need to know in general how these cases are resolved," said Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Especially with celebrity cases, the issue is do people who have certain power and money get different treatment? We need to know."

After pressure from the media, court spokesman Allan Parachini said the file would be "reviewed thoroughly" Friday to determine what portions of it should be made public. "Someone has to review it, and that is happening," he said.

The presiding judge, Charles McCoy, did not return calls. Parachini said Duffy-Lewis would not comment because the case is still considered pending since the settlement may be appealed. He also said he could not say if there were other secret filings.

The scrutiny of public records has only increased in recent years. The courthouse is a battleground in the competition for celebrity coverage, with TMZ.com alone employing three people based in the civil court. Five years ago, celebrity cases might have slipped through unnoticed, but with at least eight news outlets scouring each day's divorce filings and lawsuits, dodging the media is much more difficult.

Based on the sealing order, the case was filed in November by William P. Jacobson, identified in past news clippings as Stone's entertainment lawyer. Stone and two film companies were named as defendants. The allegations are a mystery. Stone's publicist declined to comment. In an e-mail, Jacobson wrote, "Case dismissed . . . no comment." Asked why the case had been sealed to begin with, Jacobson's attorney said, "I don't really know. You'd have to ask the judge."

The case probably would have gone unnoticed into the archives had a reporter for City News Service not had a slow February day in the civil court. Bill Hetherman said that because his schedule was free, he decided to attend a relatively small-potatoes hearing -- the matter of attorneys' fees in a sex discrimination case against Costco -- in Duffy-Lewis' court. While he was waiting, the judge called another case.

"All of a sudden I heard the name Sharon Stone and paid closer attention," he said.

Hetherman said that after a whispered conversation with Jacobson's attorney at the bench, the judge set a date a month later for the hearing.

Hetherman said he tried to find information about the case in the court database and later from the attorneys and court officials, but repeatedly was told it was sealed. The reporter said the next hearing included a hushed discussion between the judge and a lawyer for the actress and then a statement on the record that suggested the case was over.

A lawyer for Stone, he recalled, told the judge "that it was a win-win situation for both sides if this remains sealed because it's settled and if it was unsealed it would bring about additional litigation that neither side would want."

Approached Thursday about buying transcripts of these open, public hearings, a court reporter in Duffy-Lewis' courtroom said she first had to get approval from the judge so she didn't "get in trouble."

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harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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