A hospital in St. Joseph, Missouri, wages a legal war against the local newspaper
The case, which began as a garden-variety employment lawsuit, has morphed into a First Amendment battle.
A legal dispute over the firing of a hospital employee has escalated into a battle pitting one of the largest employers in St. Joseph, Missouri, against the city’s daily newspaper.
Heartland Regional Medical Center — which operates as Mosaic Life Care — earlier this month deposed both the reporter who covered the dispute for the St. Joseph News-Press, Clayton Anderson, and the newspaper’s director of news and content, Steven Booher.
The hospital has since upped the ante and requested sanctions against attorneys representing the fired hospital employee, Reba Lasseur. Mosaic argues that Lasseur's attorneys disclosed information to the newspaper that was subject to a court-issued protective order.
“I believe they were trying to intimidate the St. Joseph News-Press from printing any more stories about this sanctions order and covering it,” said Sonal Bhatia, one of Lasseur’s attorneys, in a phone interview this week.
In April, Mosaic itself was sanctioned by the judge in the case after the judge found the hospital had produced a misleading spreadsheet showing only two out of 526 sick or injured employees had been terminated or otherwise let go for reporting sick.
While waiting for Mosaic to produce its injury report spreadsheets, Bhatia’s law firm paid for a billboard on a major St. Joseph thoroughfare asking Mosaic employees who had been fired to call the firm. It emerged that, in fact, at least 163 Mosaic employees had been terminated or let go after reporting sick.
Buchanan County Circuit Judge Daniel Kellogg sanctioned Mosaic by striking its pleadings in the case and barring it from presenting any evidence of its own other than cross-examining the plaintiff’s witnesses.
In May, Kellogg found Mosaic in default, leaving the jury to determine only the amount of damages it should pay Lasseur. But Kellogg declared a mistrial over a legal technicality, and the case is now set to go to trial again at an unspecified date.
Six days after he declared the mistrial, the News-Press published a storyabout Lasseur’s lawsuit. The story, written by Anderson, referred to the discrepancies in Mosaic’s spreadsheets and the judge’s decision to sanction the hospital.
Those discrepancies were cited in the judge’s order sanctioning Mosaic, which was a matter of public record. But Mosaic remained convinced that Bhatia and her colleagues had violated the court’s protective order by disclosing confidential information to Anderson.
So the hospital subpoenaed the News-Press for its records, including Anderson’s videotaped interview with Bhatia’s lawyer-colleague and husband, E.E. Keenan.
Because the News Press’ reporters also do double duty as reporters for the newspaper’s sister television stations — FOX 26 KNPN, NBC 21 KNPG and CBS 30 KCJO — they typically videotape their interviews.
Booher told KCUR that the News-Press declined to provide the requested information to Mosaic and said he regarded the depositions as “a fishing expedition.”
“We have not provided anything and have not provided either side anything that we didn’t either publish or air on our TV newscast,” Booher said.
The case, which began as a garden-variety employment lawsuit by Lasseur, has now morphed into a full-blown First Amendment battle. But somewhat remarkably, the News-Press did not provide legal counsel for Anderson and Booher when they were deposed by Mosaic.
Booher, a 42-year news veteran, said that having been deposed before, “I sort of knew how this was gonna go. And if there had been anything that I wasn’t comfortable with, I would have immediately asked for a continuance to consult a legal expert.”
The News-Press is owned by the News-Press & Gazette Co. in St. Joseph, a multimedia company whose properties include daily newspapers in Missouri and Kansas, as well as radio and television stations in Missouri and other states.
David R. Bradley, the CEO of News-Press & Gazette Co., told KCUR that legal counsel wasn’t provided to Anderson and Booher because they didn’t ask for it.
“If they wanted an attorney, we’ll get ’em one,” he said.
Bradley said he hadn’t paid much attention to the case, noting that the News-Press & Gazette Co. has 1,500 employees in the various businesses that he oversees.
“And I’ve been really involved in lots of other things right now,” Bradley said.
First Amendment issues
Although they represent Lasseur, not the News-Press, Bhatia and her colleagues — who were present for Anderson’s and Booher’s depositions — did their best to raise objections on First Amendment grounds to the questions posed to the pair.
During Anderson’s deposition, Mosaic’s attorney, Lauren Nichols, asked Anderson how he learned of Lasseur’s lawsuit. At that point, Mark Obermeyer, Bhatia’s colleague, interjected: “He is not obligated to answer under Missouri law or the First Amendment.”
“How a reporter went about conducting his First Amendment-protected activities are not within the scope of discovery… are directed to harassing the plaintiff and harassing the news media in violation of the First Amendment,” Obermeyer said.
Keenan, Bhatia’s partner, noted that the News-Press was not a party to the case and wasn’t involved in the decision to terminate Lasseur.
“Their sole function is engaging in the First Amendment protected activity of writing a news story about proceedings in a public court funded by the taxpayers,” Keenan said, objecting to one of Nichols’ questions.
Anderson, who is 25 and has been a reporter for just three years, told KCUR it was the first time he’d been deposed.
“I was kind of shocked by the whole process and taken aback a little bit just because I’ve never experienced something like this,” he said.
Anderson said he didn't give much thought to obtaining counsel after he and Booher were subpoenaed.
“It got sent not to me, it got sent like to someone on the business side, then it got sent to Steve’s desk,” he said. “And then I don’t know what happened from there other than I showed up on the day I showed up.”
For its part, Mosaic says it deposed Anderson and Booher because they believe Lasseur’s attorneys disclosed confidential information subject to the court’s protective order.
“This information includes the identities of Mosaic employees who are not party to this litigation who have reported workplace injuries (which may include sensitive medical information) and their employment status,” Mosaic spokesperson Joey Austin said in an email responding to KCUR’s questions.
Austin said that information should have been filed under seal.
“Additionally, Mr. Anderson with the News-Press told Mosaic that he interviewed Ms. Lasseur’s attorneys, and they had shared information with him,” Austin said. “He told Mosaic that this interview was recorded. Mosaic asked the News-Press if they could view the full video of the interview to ensure that no confidential information was disclosed by Ms. Lasseur’s attorneys. The News-Press told Mosaic that they could not release the video without a court order. That is why Mosaic subpoenaed the video of the interview from the News-Press.”
Bernie Rhodes, a Kansas City media attorney who has no involvement in the case, said that if Mosaic’s attorneys have a complaint with Lasseur’s attorneys, “they should take it up with them and not drag the independent news media into their fights.”
Rhodes, who provides legal counsel to the Midwest Newsroom, which is based at KCUR, said there were ways to get the information Mosaic was seeking without bringing in the news media.
“They’re called the news media for a reason,” Rhodes said. “They report on news. And if every time there’s something in the news and we’ve got to go testify about it, we might as well stop being reporters and just become professional witnesses, because that’s all we’ll have time to do.”