The Akre/Wilson Complaint below is followed by Defendent-Fox's Response

 

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR THE THIRTEENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT

IN AND FOR HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDA

GENERAL CIVIL DIVISION

Case No.

COMPLAINT

[DECLARATORY RELIEF AND JURY TRIAL SOUGHT]

PLAINTIFFS, STEVE WILSON and JANE AKRE, sue the DEFENDANT, NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS OF TAMPA, INC., doing business as WTVT Channel 13, Tampa and further allege as follows:

JURISDICTION AND VENUE

1. This is an action for declaratory relief and for damages exceeding $15,000.00, exclusive of interest, costs and attorneys’ fees. The PLAINTIFFS seek a declaration of their rights under contracts of employment entered into with DEFENDANT NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS OF TAMPA, INC. and declaratory relief and damages for violation of the Florida Whistle-blower Act, 448.101, et seq., Fla. Stat.

2. Venue properly lies in this Court because the DEFENDANT is and at times material was doing business in Hillsborough County Florida, where the contract was entered into and breached and where certain unlawful acts complained of occurred.

PARTIES

3. The Plaintiff, STEVE WILSON, is of the age of majority, is sui juris, and resides in Pinellas County, Florida. At times material he was employed by the DEFENDANT pursuant to a contract of employment, a true copy of which is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "A".

4. The Plaintiff, JANE AKRE, is of the age of majority, is sui juris, and resides in Pinellas County, Florida. At times material she was employed by the DEFENDANT pursuant to a contract of employment, a true copy of which is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "B".

5. The DEFENDANT, NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS OF TAMPA, INC., a Florida Corporation d/b/a WTVT Channel 13, Tampa,[hereinafter "NEW WORLD"] is a Florida corporation which owns and operates a television broadcasting station, WTVT Channel 13, located in Tampa, Hillsborough County, Florida. At times material DEFENDANT employed PLAINTIFFS pursuant to contracts of employment, Exhibits "A" and "B".

FACTS COMMON TO ALL COUNTS

6. PLAINTIFFS are both professional journalists with distinguished backgrounds in television broadcasting and investigative reporting.

7. Plaintiff AKRE has 19 years of broadcast experience including work as a television news anchor and reporter at stations in Tampa, Miami, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Tucson markets and at the Cable News Network (CNN). She has won numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious award for her investigative reporting.

8. Plaintiff WILSON has nearly 25 years of experience as a journalist, primarily as an investigative reporter at television stations in Buffalo, New York and San Francisco, California, before developing a distinguished reputation as an investigative correspondent on national television. WILSON has won numerous awards for his professional work including three Emmys, and the 1996 National Press Club Award for Investigative and Consumer Reporting on Television, and numerous other national and regional awards in the field of journalism.

9. PLAINTIFFS, who are married, were recruited by DEFENDANT in November 1996 to join the staff of its WTVT Channel 13 news operation for the purpose of using their unique professional abilities to investigative important issues of public concern and produce and broadcast reports for the station’s newscasts. The parties entered into the Employment Agreements, Exhibits "A" and "B" on November 18, 1996.

10. Shortly after beginning work at the station, Plaintiff AKRE discovered through her own efforts, contacts, and independent research, that a suspected cancer-promoting substance had found its way into the milk supply of the state of Florida. Upon advising station personnel of her findings, she was directed to continue to investigate and was fully authorized to produce a series of television reports about the discovery.

11. In mid January, 1997, Plaintiff WILSON, who had just completed another investigative project for the station, was directed by station management to join and assist Plaintiff AKRE in her investigation and production of the reports on the state’s milk supply.

12. On February 17, 1997, PLAINTIFFS presented NEW WORLD with a script of the first of four parts to be broadcast on the station. Scripts for parts II, III, and IV of the report were delivered February 18, 19, and 20, a full week before the scheduled broadcast date of each.

13. PLAINTIFFS’ reports clearly revealed, and confirmed with accompanying videotaped scenes and many recorded interviews, that seven out of seven Florida dairy farms PLAINTIFF AKRE visited at random were regularly injecting cows with a controversial new drug commonly known as Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH). The report included information and interviews with scientific experts and others explaining that the drug, marketed by the Monsanto Company under the trade name POSILAC, [a registered trademark of Monsanto Company] has failed to receive the required government approval in Canada, New Zealand, and most European countries due to a suspected link between cancer and human consumption of milk from BGH-treated cows, among other reasons.

14. PLAINTIFFS’ reports further documented and revealed how widespread consumer protests in Florida in 1994 (after POSILAC was approved for use by the veterinary medicine division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) led to promises by large Florida grocers that milk from BGH-treated cows would not be purchased for sale to Florida consumers until the drug had achieved widespread acceptance.

15. As is customary, PLAINTIFFS and WTVT station management, in consultation with station counsel, began their review of the reporters’ findings and proposed broadcast scripts immediately upon receipt. PLAINTIFFS responded to NEW WORLD’s various routine inquiries for clarification and support of claims included in the reports, as are generally required in the pre-broadcast or pre-publishing review of any investigative report.

16. After initial review of the PLAINTIFFS’ reports, NEW WORLD’s agents were sufficiently satisfied with the quality and truthfulness of each and all of them that NEW WORLD purchased, at great expense, commercial air time on local radio stations for the purposes of broadcasting promotional announcements produced by NEW WORLD to alert television viewers that the four-part series would be broadcast on Channel 13 beginning Monday, February 24, 1997.

17. On Friday, February 21, 1997, the last business day prior to the scheduled broadcast of the reports, the president of another division of NEW WORLD’s parent company, News Corp Inc, received a letter (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "C") from John J. Walsh, an attorney for the New York law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, retained by the Monsanto Company to challenge and stifle PLAINTIFFS’ reports. Citing false claims and innuendo based on hearsay, Mr. Walsh advised the News Corp executive that "Monsanto officials and scientists who have been interviewed by AKRE and WILSON or talked to them on the telephone have no confidence now in their ability to write a fair and unbiased story."

18. Later the same Friday, officials of WTVT’s parent corporation transmitted the letter to DEFENDANT’s representative in Tampa who, in turn, provided it to PLAINTIFFS. After careful examination and review, PLAINTIFFS advised station news management that nothing in the letter raised any credible claim as to the truthfulness, accuracy, or fairness of the reports. Nonetheless, PLAINTIFFS made it clear they were concerned about the threatening nature of the Cadwalader letter, particularly the part which read: "There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto, but also for Fox News and its owner" and "on behalf of Monsanto, I ask that you and your Fox News colleagues consider thoroughly what is at stake and the enormous damage that can be done by the reckless presentation of unsupported speculation as fact and the equally reckless publication of unsupported accusations or innuendo of fraud, deception and bribery in connection with something as serious as the obtaining of approvals for a product such as rBST."

19. NEW WORLD notified PLAINTIFFS later that same day of the decision to postpone the planned broadcasts to more carefully review claims made in the letter. The station’s news director at the time, Daniel Webster, admitted to PLAINTIFFS that the reports were being withheld solely because of the Cadwalader letter. Despite their decision, radio announcements continued to run through the weekend and most of the day Monday.

20. What followed was a nearly nine-month process in which PLAINTIFFS were ordered to write and re-write at least 73 versions of the broadcast reports while NEW WORLD repeatedly threatened and carried out various threats of retaliatory employment actions to coerce PLAINTIFFS to broadcast information that PLAINTIFFS repeatedly demonstrated was unfair, inaccurate, false and misleading to the viewing public.

21. On Monday, February 24, 1997, PLAINTIFFS provided to Carolyn Forrest, NEW WORLD’s staff counsel, a detailed response documenting the falsity of all of the claims in the Cadwalader letter, attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "D". On the following Wednesday, PLAINTIFFS met with WTVT’s then President/General Manager, its news director and assistant news director and, by telephone hookup, with station counsel Forrest and outside counsel Greg Jones, for the purpose of reviewing the Cadwalader claims. As a result of that conversation, it was mutually decided that PLAINTIFFS would offer Monsanto officials an additional opportunity to be interviewed to broaden and clarify the responses they gave in an earlier interview which was included in the original reports. A new airdate was set for the series to begin the following Monday, March 3, 1997.

22. In response to PLAINTIFFS’ interview request made the following day, a Monsanto official demanded a detailed list of questions the reporters would ask in any follow-up interview. Providing exact questions to any interview subject violates the ethical codes of most news organizations, and PLAINTIFFS therefore were directed by the DEFENDANT’s news director to provide Monsanto only with a list of the areas of inquiry so that a company spokesperson could be fully prepared to provide responsive answers. In response, John J. Walsh sent another letter (Attached as Exhibit "E") with a much more direct threat to the same Fox executive who received the first, predicting "dire consequences for Fox News" should it broadcast certain information disputed by Monsanto. The letter rejected PLAINTIFFS’ offer to conduct an additional interview because Monsanto had concluded interview subjects would "become the target of accusations repeated by Ms. Akre by unidentified and, in all probability, scientifically incompetent persons".

23. In response to this second letter, the re-scheduled broadcasts were postponed again without explanation to PLAINTIFFS and another meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, March 5, 1997 with PLAINTIFFS and WTVT news management and their staff and outside counsel. Without explanation, PLAINTIFFS were excluded from the March 5th meeting and subsequently directed to revise their reports and provide additional documentation for new questions that were raised.

24. On the following day, PLAINTIFFS provided NEW WORLD with a 2-inch binder full of detailed answers to each of their questions and copies of all documents responsive to the issues raised.

25. Defendant NEW WORLD responded with further questions and directives to alter the reports to an even greater extent. Although PLAINTIFFS agreed to numerous additional changes as directed by NEW WORLD and its counsel, NEW WORLD repeatedly ignored documentation provided by PLAINTIFFS which clearly verified the truth and accuracy of the reports as written and instead directed PLAINTIFFS to include information which PLAINTIFFS knew to be false or misleading. PLAINTIFFS suggested if NEW WORLD was not willing to broadcast fair and accurate reports in the wake of threats from Monsanto, the story could easily be taken off the station’s broadcast schedule.

26. The review process continued until April 10, 1997 when a new station manager, David Boylan, presented reporters with a letter from Fox station counsel Carolyn Forrest (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "F") who falsely charged PLAINTIFFS’ reports include "unfair treatment, unbalanced attacks, careless representations, questionable links to unrelated points, or unsubstantiated assertions." The letter offered to release PLAINTIFFS from their employment contracts and warned that "failure to adhere to and cooperate with our procedures and directions constitute insubordination and are a breach of your employment agreement". The letter was sent to the President of the Fox Television Stations, the largest group of stations in America, and to other top officials throughout the company.

27. PLAINTIFFS assured Station Manager Boylan the charges in the Forrest letter were untrue and PLAINTIFFS were fully committed to a fair and balanced report on a controversial subject, but unwilling to knowingly broadcast information known to be false or misleading. In response to PLAINTIFFS’ requests that Mr. Boylan look at the scripts himself, he replied that he "wasn’t interested" in the story and instead pressured PLAINTIFFS to follow whatever directions company lawyers made regardless of how such directed changes may conflict with the truth or fairness of the broadcasts. He made it clear that failure to do so would have detrimental effects on the employment status and future careers of PLAINTIFFS, warning them, "Are you sure this is a hill you’re willing to die on?" PLAINTIFFS reasserted their responsibility to use the public airwaves to report honestly and accurately and made it clear they must resist any direction to act to the contrary, regardless of the company’s motivation.

28. PLAINTIFFS were called to meet again with Station Manager Boylan on April 16, 1997 at which time he again ordered PLAINTIFFS to broadcast material known to be false and misleading. "We paid $3 Billion for these television stations," Mr. Boylan asserted. "We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is." Mr. Boylan then notified both PLAINTIFFS "you will be fired for insubordination within 48 hours" and another staff member would be given the reports to broadcast in a manner which included changes PLAINTIFFS had demonstrated to be false or misleading. PLAINTIFFS responded by informing the station manager that if a false and misleading report were aired it would be their responsibility to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission charging willful and intentional falsification of the news by a television licensee, a violation of the Communications Act of 1934. Given the impasse, Mr. Boylan suggested the other alternative was a settlement in which both PLAINTIFFS would be paid for the remainder of the year in exchange for a confidentiality agreement not to disclose details of the BGH story or how it had been handled at WTVT.

29. Notice of termination was not forthcoming and on April 24, 1997, Plaintiff WILSON responded to the Forrest letter of April 10, 1997 denying all of counsel’s allegations of irresponsible journalism and reaffirming a commitment to "fair, accurate and honest reporting above all else." A true copy of WILSON’s letter is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "G". WILSON also wrote, "I am fully prepared to adhere to and cooperate with your procedures and directions to the extent they do not require me to produce a broadcast which includes facts or characterizations I know to be false or misleading. Some of the changes previously suggested would do exactly that."

30. On May 6, 1997, PLAINTIFFS received a proposed Separation Agreement and General Release of All Claims, a true copy of which is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "H". It offered PLAINTIFFS full salary for the balance of the contract year in exchange for a release of all potential claims PLAINTIFFS have or may have against the company and its related entities and persons, and for PLAINTIFFS’ silence on all information, knowledge or data about the company or related entities which has been designated and/or treated as confidential. The offer contemplated PLAINTIFFS dropping their ethical objections and airing the BGH story in a form acceptable to NEW WORLD before the end of May. The pre-broadcast review process continued in the same contentious, unyielding manner while PLAINTIFFS reviewed the proposed settlement.

31. Plaintiff AKRE declined the offer of separation May 21, 1997(attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "I"). On May 28, 1997, still at odds over language of the first episode of the BGH broadcast which has by that time been re-written at least 16 times, Plaintiff WILSON also wrote to decline the offer. In his letter (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "J"), Plaintiff WILSON advised Ms. Forrest, "Getting these broadcasts on the air and making this important information widely available to our viewers is my primary commitment. I place it even above the opportunity for personal benefit by the terms you have suggested. It is why I have worked far in excess of my contractually obligated 10 hours a week with no additional compensation for many, many weeks. And it is why I must respectfully decline your offer at this time."

32. In a May 29, 1997 telephone conference, PLAINTIFFS were told by Defendant’s counsel Carolyn Forrest. "I don’t think this story is worth going to court and to trial spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars to fight Monsanto." She further made it clear to Plaintiffs that "it doesn’t matter if the facts are true" but whether a possible lawsuit by the chemical maker Monsanto could be dismissed quickly and easily by summary judgment.

33. By June 19, 1997, PLAINTIFFS had followed DEFENDANT’S instructions and editorial directives in re-writing the scripts at least 18 times. PLAINTIFFS still contended, however, the modified report was inaccurate or misleading in many respects. At no time throughout the entire course of editorial review process, before or after this date, did DEFENDANT’S representatives ever point to a single example of an inaccurate or mis-reported fact in any of PLAINTIFFS’ scripts. General Manager Boylan instructed Plaintiff AKRE to be available for other work to be assigned starting June 23, 1997 when Phil Metlin assumed his duties as the station’s new Vice-President-News. When plaintiff AKRE pointed out her employment contract calls for her to work as an investigative reporter, Mr. Boylan replied, "Why do we have to work with contracts anyway?" Plaintiff AKRE suggested if investigative reporting was no longer being done at WTVT, she would be amenable to performing duties as a medical reporter or other specialty not presently being covered by the station. Instead, when Plaintiff AKRE reported for work she was assigned, in clear violation of her employment agreement, to report on the vandalism of a vacant house, a purported "news story" that was not covered by any other station.

34. At a meeting with PLAINTIFFS on June 25, 1997, Vice President-News Metlin concluded the BGH story was important and promised to get the process back on track. He scheduled and personally attended yet another legal review session with outside counsel Greg Jones on July 11th and another date was set for the reports to be broadcast starting July 28th. Plaintiff AKRE produced a tape of the latest version of the report and PLAINTIFFS and Mr. Metlin agreed that some of the changes made as a result of the July 11 meeting did not work and further changes were needed. A true copy of the edited version of the report is attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit "K". A new airdate was set for August 3rd but counsel refused to approve the versions generally acceptable to PLAINTIFFS and Mr. Metlin. Additional changes were made and a new airdate set for August 10th, the sixth airdate set and canceled by DEFENDANT in six months. Again, counsel failed to approve changes generally acceptable to PLAINTIFFS and Mr. Metlin and PLAINTIFFS left on a scheduled vacation.

35. While away on vacation, PLAINTIFFS were advised by the VP-News that management was considering the termination of their employment contracts by exercising a provision that allows termination on December 2, 1997 if written notice is provided September 1, 1997 to September 21, 1997. Upon return to Florida, Plaintiff WILSON received notification by mail that his employment was terminated without cause, a true copy of which is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "L". Plaintiff AKRE returned and resumed working at the station beginning September 6, 1997 (still during the notification period) but never received any written notice until the day after the notification period when the VP-News provided her with written notification the station claims to have mailed.

36. On September 23, 1997, Plaintiff WILSON wrote station manager Boylan (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "M") to contest the termination on the grounds it was not being done "without cause" as claimed but is actually in retaliation for PLAINTIFFS refusal to go along with the station’s "desire to slant the story in favor of a corporate giant who has threatened you with ‘dire consequences’ for telling the truth on television."

37. Also on September 23, 1997, Plaintiff AKRE wrote a separate letter to Mr. Boylan (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "N") contesting her dismissal on the same grounds and the additional ground that she did not receive the required written notice during the notification period.

38. On September 24, 1997, V-P News Metlin, asked PLAINTIFFS to make another effort at resolving the BGH story by writing two additional versions, a final draft in the form station counsel insisted upon, and a version which the PLAINTIFFS believed more accurate and honestly conveyed the BGH story. While Plaintiffs were following Mr. Metlin’s direction, they were called to the office of station manager Boylan on September 30th and, in the presence of the company personnel officer, PLAINTIFFS were notified they were both being suspended 10 days without pay for the insubordination evidenced by their September 23rd letters contesting the dismissals and indicating they would pursue remedies through the courts and the FCC.

39. PLAINTIFFS were further advised in the September 30, 1997 meeting that unless they worked without pay "as an act to evidence good faith and to evidence (PLAINTIFFS’) willingness to continue to work on the BGH story" by completing the assignments given by Mr. Metlin on September 24th, the suspension would be changed to an immediate termination for cause, the cause being failure to perform work as assigned.

40. PLAINTIFFS did continue to work on the assignment during the suspension period even after they discovered that Mr. Boylan had locked them out of the building and the station computer in which were stored many of the reporters’ records and notes. After Plaintiff WILSON met with Mr. Boylan on October 2nd, Mr. Boylan, in a letter dated and faxed to PLAINTIFFS October 6th (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "O"), recanted his instructions that in order to avoid termination at the end of the PLAINTIFFS’ suspension period they must continue to work on the report as an act of good faith. His letter explained the suspension of both PLAINTIFFS was necessary because "everyone who works with you (management and attorneys) finds it a very strained and contentious process. This has resulted in an excessively long review process for a single news report that was not warranted. As a result of your actions, we were left with no choice but to suspend you while we determine whether to terminate you for cause." His letter also indicated PLAINTIFFS would be paid if they worked during the suspension.

41. On October 10, 1997, PLAINTIFFS were advised in a letter from company staff counsel Forrest, that "The evaluation of the events leading to the suspension has not yet been completed and no decision has been reached regarding your continued employment with WTVT other than the notification of termination without cause that you were sent on September 2, 1997." A true copy of Forrest’s letter is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "P". "Therefore," the letter continued, "it is necessary to extend the period of suspension. The suspension period will be extended through October 20, 1997." PLAINTIFFS nonetheless completed their assignment for the two additional script versions (attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibits "Q" and "R") and delivered them to Mr. Metlin October 16, 1997. To provide further evidence and clarity of PLAINTIFFS continuing objections to the report as mandated by station counsel, PLAINTIFFS clearly noted and explained each and every objection as part of those scripts.

42. DEFENDANT’S Vice President and General Manager gave PLAINTIFFS his personal assurance that PLAINTIFFS would not be terminated ["you have my word that your checks will not stop December 1 and the story is going to run."] On or about November 30, 1997, counsel for Fox Television Stations Inc. in Los Angeles, Gary Roberts, notified PLAINTIFFS by fax that their services were terminated. A true copy of the Roberts’ November 30, 1997 fax is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "S".

43. PLAINTIFFS clearly and repeatedly advised Defendant NEW WORLD that the broadcast of false or misleading news reports was not only unethical conduct for journalists and a news organization but also violated the Federal Communications Act of 1934 which regulates the operation of all stations licensed to use the public airways. Nonetheless, Defendant NEW WORLD continued to insist that PLAINTIFFS broadcast a version of the story which, among other things, deliberately failed to disclose important and relevant facts necessary to tell a fair and accurate story; deliberately misrepresented important information; deliberately included statements by certain individuals, as demanded by Monsanto, which were known to be false, without reporting corresponding facts which might be contradictory but nonetheless true; and omitted relevant information about the scientific credentials of individuals who appeared in the report.

44. PLAINTIFFS insisted and repeatedly advised the WTVT station manager, as early as April 16, 1997, that if compelled to broadcast facts known to them as journalists to be untrue or misleading to the public viewing audience, PLAINTIFFS would be compelled to file a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which regulates all television stations which hold a federal license to operate in the public interest.

45. In retaliation, over the course of nearly nine months, as detailed here, NEW WORLD:

a. wrongly informed PLAINTIFFS they were both being terminated for insubordination within 48 hours;

b. notified PLAINTIFFS they would be terminated by DEFENDANT’S use of a provision in PLAINTIFFS’ employment agreements that allowed termination of their employment without cause during a window period when, in fact and by NEW WORLD’s own admission subsequently, the termination was motivated by PLAINTIFFS’ continuing objections and refusal to broadcast false and misleading news reports (a true copy of the Forrest letter is attached hereto and incorporated herein by reference as Exhibit "T");

c. advised PLAINTIFFS they were being suspended in violation of their employment contracts for 10 days without pay for the alleged insubordination of notifying the station manager in writing of the potential violation of the Federal Communications Act and PLAINTIFFS’ right to file an FCC complaint if Defendant NEW WORLD persisted in carrying through with their stated intent to publish false and misleading news reports respecting the BGH story;

d. advised PLAINTIFFS their suspension would result in immediate termination for the cause of "failing to perform work as assigned" unless PLAINTIFFS continued to work during the unpaid suspension period despite the fact, unknown to PLAINTIFFS at first, that WORLD had locked PLAINTIFFS out of the building and computer files which held the research and other material necessary to perform the assignment;

e. later reinstated PLAINTIFF’s pay retroactively but extended their suspension period an additional week while NEW WORLD claimed to be continuing to evaluate the events which led to the suspension;

f. finally ended the suspension period but continued to lock PLAINTIFFS out of their workplace because, as the station manager said, "it will make good copy someday when this gets in the papers";

g. Plaintiff AKRE’s Employment Agreement provided that her duties included anchoring weekend news broadcasts for the Station. She was removed from such duties as of October 4, 1997, and after the conclusion the period of "suspension" continued to be removed from such duties, notwithstanding the fact her performance was never questioned and was told by Station officials that the Station had received its highest ratings ever for that time period and, in fact, expanded the broadcasts.

COUNT I

Breach of Contract

PLAINTIFFS reallege and incorporate herein by reference the allegations contained within paragraphs 1 through 45 as further state as follows:

46. This is an action for breach of contract.

47. On November 18, 1996, NEW WORLD entered into an employment agreement with Plaintiff WILSON, a copy of said agreement being attached hereto marked Exhibit "A" and made a part hereof.

48. On November 18, 1996, NEW WORLD entered into an employment agreement with Plaintiff AKRE, a copy of said agreement being attached hereto marked Exhibit "B" and made a part hereo.

49. The terms of each said agreement provided that PLAINTIFFS were to be employed by DEFENDANT from December 2, 1996 through December 1, 1998 [unless terminated earlier as provided in the Agreement] as an on-the-air investigative reporter, for DEFENDANT's Television Station and DEFENDANT was to pay to the Plaintiff for her services an annual salary plus benefits.

50. PLAINTIFFS were employed by DEFENDANT pursuant to the terms and provisions of said Agreements, from December 2, 1996 to December 1, 1997.

51. PLAINTIFFS fully and faithfully performed any and all duties assigned to them and otherwise fulfilled their obligations under the Agreements.

52. NEW WORLD, nonetheless suspended PLAINTIFFS’ employment in violation of the employment Agreements, threatened to terminate the Employment Agreements immediately unless the PLAINTIFFS agreed to engage in activities, as described above, which they believed to be unethical and in violation of the Federal Communications Act, and the rules and regulations promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission.

53. The Agreement provided that Plaintiff AKRE’s duties included anchoring weekend news broadcasts for the Station. She was removed from such duties as of October 4, 1997, and after the conclusion the period of "suspension" continued to be removed from such duties, notwithstanding the fact her performance was never questioned and was told by Station officials that the Station had received its highest ratings ever for that time period and, in fact, expanded the broadcasts.

54. Plaintiff Akre’s Employment Agreement requires, at 2(C), that if NEW WORLD wished to terminate the Agreement without cause after the first contract year, notice in writing was required to be given to Plaintiff Akre by September 21, 1997. NEW WORLD failed to give timely notice to Akre pursuant to 2(C), however NEW WORLD nonetheless terminated her employment for the second year of the contract from December 2, 1997 to December 1, 1998.

55. The PLAINTIFFS performed their obligations under their Employment Agreements and, but for the termination of such employment were and are prepared to fulfill the obligations of the remainder of the term.

56. The PLAINTIFFS have been damaged as a result of the breach of their Employment Agreements.

57. The PLAINTIFFS have incurred costs and attorney's fees to prosecute this action for breach of their employment contracts.

Wherefore, the PLAINTIFFS demand:

a. That the court assert jurisdiction over this claim;

b. Compensatory damages and prejudgment interest;

c. Trial by jury on all issues so triable;

d. Costs of this action and a reasonable attorney's fee;

e. Such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable.

COUNT II

Declaratory Judgment

PLAINTIFFS reallege and incorporate herein by reference the allegations contained within paragraphs 1 through 45 as further state as follows:

58. This is an action for declaratory relief pursuant to Chapter 86 of the Florida Statutes.

59. PLAINTIFFS are entitled to relief against NEW WORLD upon the facts stated above and the following facts:

60. The Employment Agreements, Exhibits "A" and "B", provide at 1(B) that the PLAINTIFFS are obligated to perform such duties "as are reasonably assigned by the Company...." As described, above, the PLAINTIFFS were directed by DEFENDANT’s agents and representatives to perform duties in conflict with the Federal Communications Act and the rules and regulations of the Federal Communications Commission regarding rigging and slanting of the news, in conflict with the ethics of the profession of journalism, and in conflict with the PLAINTIFFS’ obligations as stated in the Employment Agreements at 2(B)(v)(xi)(xii) and (xiii).

61. The Employment Agreements, Exhibits "A" and "B" provide at 2(B)(xii) that the Company may terminate PLAINTIFFS "for cause" for "conduct which would jeopardize the license to operate the Station" and, at 2(B)(ii), that the Company may terminate PLAINTIFFS "for cause" for "insubordination". PLAINTIFFS were directed, in response to accusations and threats by Monsanto, and on threat of termination for cause for "insubordination" to prepare and participate in the broadcast of news report which included false and misleading information constituting rigged or slanted news, and which, if aired, would "jeopardize the license to operate the Station." The directions to the PLAINTIFFS and these provisions of the Employment Agreements are in direct conflict.

62. The Employment Agreements provide that, depending on whether the PLAINTIFFS are terminated "for cause" rather than "without cause," they remain bound by 6(A), (B), (C), (D), (E) and (F) of the Agreements, which provided, inter alia, a period of non-competition that extends for 180 days after the termination of the Agreements, which substantially restricts their rights to seek and accept employment in the WTVT Designated Market Area. Based on the circumstances described in the preceding paragraphs of the Complaint, the PLAINTIFFS are in doubt about the rights under the Contract, and, in particular, whether they are or are not subject to the restrictions specified in 6(A), (B), (C), (D), (E) and (F), and further whether, by the conduct of NEW WORLD, any and all such post-contract provisions, including 4, 5, 7(B) and (C) are void or voidable by PLAINTIFFS.

63. The Employment Agreements provide that the "[I]f the Company, or any of its successors or assigns, shall institute an action or proceeding to enforce the provisions of [the] non-competition covenant, the Company shall be entitled to injunctive or other equitable relief, in addition to damages and attorney’s fees and costs, in an action at law, to prevent the failure to perform or other violation of the provisions of this Agreement." If the PLAINTIFFS were denied the relief sought herein, they would be subject to suit and claims by DEFENDANTS asserted under 6(C).

64. The Employment Agreements further provide at 4 that all scripts and creative material created by or performed by the PLAINTIFFS shall be "work made for hire" and at 5 that PLAINTIFFS shall keep confidential and secret "knowledge and information of a confidential nature which Employee may now know or hereafter come to know as a result of (his) (her) employment at the Station" which provision describes "matters relating to client or advertiser lists, marketing and promotional strategies and plans, programing strategies and plans, production techniques, and the business, financial affairs or methodology of the Station and the Company." Paragraph 5 further states that PLAINTIFFS "shall not take any documents or other tangible expressions of any of the foregoing, and further shall relinquish all keys, identification cards and telephone, computer and any other passwords used in connection with Employee’s employment." PLAINTIFFS’ have compiled research and information relating to the BGH report, including personal notes, taped interviews, and materials obtained from the public domain. Paragraphs 4 and 5 are ambiguous in that the documents and information in PLAINTIFFS’ possession are not designated confidential and are not within any category specifically described in 4 or 5. NEW WORLD has, however, indicated that no such materials may be retained by PLAINTIFFS, such that the parties are in doubt about their rights under 4 and 5.

65. PLAINTIFFS are uncertain about their rights under the Employment Agreements. There is an actual controversy between the parties and if PLAINTIFFS are denied the relief requested the rights of the parties, or either of them will be seriously affected and one party or the other will sustain substantial damages for breach.

WHEREFORE, PLAINTIFFS demand:

a. A declaratory judgment construing the rights of the parties under the Employment Agreements.

b. A declaration that requiring PLAINTIFFS to participate in the preparation and broadcast of the BGH news report containing false or misleading information is not a reasonable assignment of duties within the meaning of 1(B) of the Agreements;

c. A declaration that the direction to the PLAINTIFFS that they participate in the preparation and broadcast of the BGH news report containing false or misleading information is not reasonable or valid and cannot predicate a charge of misconduct or insubordination within the meaning of 2(B)(i) or (ii) of the Employment Agreements;

d. A declaration that, because the DEFENDANT breached the Employment Agreements, the provisions in 4, 5, 7(B) and (C) are void or voidable by the PLAINTIFFS;

e. A declaration that notes, records, copies of tape recorded interviews and materials obtained from the public domain do not fall within the scope of 4(A) or 5 of the Employment Agreements;

f. Such other relief as the Court deems just and equitable.

COUNT III

Whistle-blower Act Violation

PLAINTIFFS reallege and incorporate herein by reference the allegations contained within paragraphs 1 through 45 as further state as follows:

66. This cause of action is based upon sections 448.101-.105, Florida Statutes.

67. At all times material to this cause of action, DEFENDANT was a corporation transacting business in the State of Florida, and an employer within the meaning of 448.101(3), Fla. Stat.

68. At the time described herein, the actions of DEFENDANT and its agents, constituted violations of section 448.102, Fla. Stat., including, but not limited to:

a. Taking retaliatory personnel action against PLAINTIFFS for disclosing violations of laws, rules, and regulations, including violations of the Federal Communications Act; and

b. Taking retaliatory personnel action against PLAINTIFFS for their refusal to participate in the activities, policies and practices of DEFENDANT which were in violation of law, rules, and regulations, including violations of the Federal Communications Act.

69. As a result of the foregoing conduct of the DEFENDANT, the PLAINTIFFS have suffered lost wages and benefits of employment and prospective employment opportunities, mental distress and anguish, humiliation and embarrassment.

70. PLAINTIFFS have been compelled to retain the services of attorneys to prosecute this action and incurred attorneys fees and expenses for which the seek reimbursement.

71. PLAINTIFFS notified the DEFENDANT in writing of the violations of the law prior to instituting this action.

WHEREFORE, PLAINTIFFS demand against DEFENDANT:

a. Judgment against Defendants.

b. Trial by jury on all issues so triable.

c. Lost wages and other benefits attending employment.

d. Reinstatement to employment or front pay in lieu thereof.

e. Compensatory damages and damages as may be awarded as permitted by and in the manner provided by 768.72, Fla. Stat.

f. Costs of this suit and reasonable attorneys' fees.

g. Such additional relief which the court deems just and equitable.

SUBMITTED this ___ day of March, 1998.

John J. Chamblee, Jr., Esq.
Fla. Bar No. 179504
Law Offices of John Chamblee, Jr.
202 Cardy Street
Tampa, Florida 33606
TEL:(813) 251-4542
FAX:(813) 254-6454

__________________________________

Steve Wenzel, Esq.
Fla. Bar No._______________
Gonzalez & Wenzel
Suite 100
101 N. Franklin Street
Tampa, Florida 33602

TEL.#:(813) 224-0431
FAX #:(813) 229-8712

Attorneys for the PLAINTIFFS


GO TO LIST OF EXHIBITS


Defendent Fox-TV
(NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS)
Response to the Complaint:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE THIRTEENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT

IN AND FOR HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDA

 

 STEVE WILSON

and JANE AKRE, Plaintiffs,

v. CASE NO. 98-2439 Div. D

NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS

OF TAMPA, INC. d/b/a WTVT-TV,

A Florida corporation, Defendant

_______________________________________________//

 

ANSWER AND AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSES

 

Answer

 

Defendant New World answers the First Amended Complaint filed herein and says:

Jurisdiction and Venue

1. Admits for jurisdictional purposes only.

2. Admits that Hillsborough County, Florida is the proper venue.

3. Admits.

4. Admits.

5. Admits.

Facts Common to All Counts

6. Admits that both Plaintiffs have long careers in journalism and admits further that both have a history of employment termination and difficult working relationships, during their careers.

7. Defendant is without knowledge of the specifics of Plaintiff Akre's resume, therefore denies the allegations of Paragraph 7, and demands strict proof thereof.

8. Defendant is without knowledge of the specifics of Plaintiff Wilson's resume, therefore denies the allegations of Paragraph 8, and demands strict proof thereof.

9. Defendant admits that its News Director and Assistant News Director met with the Plaintiffs after repeated telephone entreaties from Plaintiff Akre and, further, admits that Plaintiffs were hired after that meeting but denies that Plaintiffs were "recruited" as alleged in Paragraph 9. Defendant further admits the authenticity of Exhibits A and B, attached to the Complaint.

10. Defendant admits that Plaintiff Akre proposed an investigative piece on Posilac, a trade name for Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (hereinafter "BGH"), and its manufacturer Monsanto Corporation. Defendant further admits that Plaintiff Akre was authorized to prepare the piece, but is without knowledge of the remainder of the allegations in Paragraph 10, therefore must deny same, and demands strict proof thereof.

11. Admits that Plaintiff Wilson assisted his wife, Plaintiff Akre, in the preparation of the BGH piece, as was contemplated in the parties' Employment Agreements.

12. Admits that Plaintiff Akre, finally and after many reminders from the Assistant News Director, delivered the first-draft script for Part One, which was in the nature of a detailed outline. Admits the first draft of the script for Part One was delivered thereafter in an untimely fashion and had not been reviewed by news managers nor the station's lawyer, in clear violation of Defendant's newsroom policies for investigative pieces, which policies had been repeatedly and clearly conveyed to Plaintiffs. Defendant admits further that first-draft scripts for the remaining parts of the piece likewise were delivered thereafter in a similar incomplete, unreviewed and untimely fashion. Defendant specifically denies that any scripts were delivered one full week before the scheduled air dates.

13. Admits that Plaintiff's pieces clearly showed Florida's dairy farmers were using BGH and, further, admits the pieces were biased and one-sided and clearly demonstrated that Plaintiffs consistently had ignored any information, scientific or otherwise, that was counter to their bias that Posilac is carcinogenic.

14. Admits that several years ago Florida's grocery chains had stated they would ask their suppliers to sell them milk from untreated cows, at least until consumer acceptance of BGH was no longer an issue and admit, further, that experience has shown that milk from BGH-treated cows is commingled with milk from untreated cows at Florida's various milk processing centers.

15. Admits that review of the scripts began immediately upon receipt, but specifically denies that Plaintiffs cooperated in the pre-broadcast review process, including initially responding to the request for the underlying documentation of the scripts with copies of articles from the popular press, such as The Village Voice and Family Life magazine rather than any scientific data from peer-reviewed journals.

16. Defendant denies that the pieces were broadcast-ready or were cleared for broadcast in February, 1997, but specifically admits that its news managers worked feverishly on the pieces during the week before the first scheduled broadcast date and admits further that radio promotional spots were aired during that week, as is customary in the industry, but all in the vain hope and expectation that the pieces could be re-worked and become acceptable for broadcast to Defendant's viewers on time, as scheduled.

17. Admits the authenticity of Mr. Walsh's letter, which is Exhibit C, and which speaks for itself. Defendant is without knowledge of whether Mr. Ailes ever actually received Mr. Walsh's letter (Exhibit C) and, further, is without knowledge of Monsanto Corporation's motive in retaining Mr. Walsh.

18. Admits that Defendant's General Manager and News Director received a copy of Exhibit C directly from Mr. Walsh, but are without knowledge of whether someone at the station also received a copy of the letter from its parent corporation, as alleged in Paragraph 18, therefore denies this allegation and demands strict proof thereof. Defendant further denies that Plaintiffs' response to Exhibit C alleviated its extant and growing concerns about the truthfulness, accuracy and fairness of the reports. Defendant admits Plaintiffs expressed alarm that Exhibit C would affect the air-date of the BGH series and admits further that Plaintiffs were dismissive of the matters raised in Exhibit C.

19. Admits that at the last possible moment, Defendant's news managers realized the series could not be re-worked in time for the scheduled air date, due to the biased and undocumented nature of the pieces themselves, due to complaints already received earlier from two sources in Florida, and due to Exhibit C, and decided to postpone the broadcast. Defendant specifically denies that Exhibit C was the sole reason for the postponement, as alleged in Paragraph 19 and denies that any news manager told Plaintiffs such was the case.

20. Admits that during the following months Defendant's news manager and lawyers made a superhuman effort to make the BGH piece fair, balanced, and accurate, with very little assistance from Plaintiffs and, at times, a great deal of resistance and recrimination and personal attacks from Plaintiffs. Defendant specifically denies that Plaintiffs were ordered to write and re-write at least 73 versions of the scripts, and denies that Plaintiffs submitted 73 versions of the script to Defendant's news managers for review. Defendant specifically denies that Defendant repeatedly threatened or carried out various threats of retaliatory employment actions to coerce Plaintiffs and further denies that Plaintiffs were ordered to broadcast information they had demonstrated to be unfair, inaccurate, false and misleading.

21. Admits the authenticity of Exhibit D, but denies that Exhibit D documented the falsity of the matters raised in Exhibit C. Admits further that Plaintiffs and Defendant's news managers and lawyers had a conference telephone call during the week of February 24, 1997, and that one result, among several, of that call was the decision to re-interview Monsanto officials. Denies that a new air date of March 3 was set.

22. Admits that Monsanto demanded written questions in advance of the next round of interviews and that Plaintiffs provided instead a list of areas of proposed inquiry. Admits the authenticity of Exhibit E to the Amended Complaint.

23. Admits that Defendant's news managers had begun to suspect, before receiving Exhibit E, that Plaintiffs were not interested in a fair, accurate, and balanced report on BGH. Defendant admits that at the next scheduled meeting concerning the scripts, Plaintiffs were instructed to make changes and to produce underlying documentation for the claims in the BGH piece, a standard feature of the pre-broadcast review process and a feature that should have been well-known to reporters of Plaintiffs' proclaimed expertise and experience. Defendant admits further that such request for documentation was met with Plaintiffs' vehement objections that they were insulted at such a request. A copy of those objections and purported insult is attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit 1, in a memorandum Plainiffs addressed to the station's news managers and lawyer, dated March 6, 1997. Defendant specifically denies that the reports had been scheduled for broadcast in March, 1997, or that any broadcast was postponed as a result of Defendant's receipt of Exhibit E.

24. Admits that Plaintiffs eventually produced a 3-ring binder of various documents, some of them incomplete, which did not alleviate the news managers' concerns and, in fact, raised additional questions about the fairness, accuracy, and truthfulness of the series. Defendant specifically denies that Plaintiffs' 3-ring binder was full of detailed answers to Defendant's questions.

25. Admits that Plaintiffs objected to some changes suggested by the news managers, agreed to make other changes but failed to actually do so, flatly refused to make still other changes, made some suggested changes in some drafts but then returned to the original language in some instances in subsequent drafts, and, in some instances, introduced new language that created new problems for the news managers. Defendant admits that Plaintiffs provided purported documentation to substantiate their scripts, and admits that some of the documentation flatly contradicted Plaintiffs' claims. Further, Defendant specifically denies that, during this process over many months, did Plaintiffs ever mention, either orally or in writing, the Federal Communications Commission or the Communications Act of 1934, or any other law, rule, or regulation that Defendant purportedly was violating in its review process. Defendant specifically denies that Plaintiffs clearly verified the truth and accuracy of their work or that Defendant ignored Plaintiffs' proffered documentation. Defendant specifically denies that it directed Plaintiffs to include information they knew to be false or misleading.

26. Defendant admits to the authenticity of Exhibit F, the Carolyn Forrest letter of April 10, 1997, and admits the exhibit is a fair and accurate summary of events up to that date.

27. Defendant admits that Plaintiffs told David Boylan, the station's new General Manager, that the contents of Exhibit F were untrue, just as they had previously told the news managers back in February that the contents of Exhibit C were untrue. Defendant admits that Mr. Boylan encouraged Plaintiffs to cooperate with the station's news managers and lawyers and admits further that Mr. Boylan, as General Manager, did not interfere in the pre-broadcast review process by reviewing scripts or offering editorial suggestions or engaging in other editorial functions reserved for the news managers.. Defendant specifically denies that Mr. Boylan said he was "not interested" in the BGH story, but, to the contrary, admits that Mr. Boylan was interested in resolving the controversy and getting the story on the air, as were the news managers and the station's lawyers. Defendant admits that, during the meeting described in Paragraph 27, Plaintiff Wilson confessed he was not accustomed to working with lawyers and did not like having his work reviewed by lawyers before broadcast and admits that Mr. Boylan asked him if that were a hill he was willing to die on and admits informing him that Defendant's procedures required such review. Defendant otherwise denies the allegations of Paragraph 27.

28. Defendant denies that Mr. Boylan or any other agent or employee of Defendant ever ordered Plaintiffs to broadcast material known to be false and misleading, either during the meeting described in Paragraph 28 or at any other time. Defendant admits that Plaintiff Wilson and Mr. Boylan discussed, again, the Defendant's standard pre-broadcast review process and the necessity of Plaintiffs' conforming their conduct to it. Defendant admits further that Plaintiffs and Mr. Boylan discussed the possibility of Plaintiff Wilson's just resigning and Plaintiff Akre being assigned to the duties of weekend anchor and health reporter. Defendant denies that the specifics of the BGH story were even discussed at either of the meetings described in Paragraphs 27 and 28, but admits that the meetings centered on Plaintiffs' distress at the pre-broadcast review process itself as a fixture of the station's normal procedures and the overall direction of the station's investigative unit. Defendant specifically admits that Mr. Boylan said the company had paid $3 billion for a group of ten stations, and the company was entitled to set up the pre-broadcast review process it chose and that, until Plaintiff Wilson owned his own station, he must follow Defendant's procedures. Defendant specifically denies that Mr. Boylan ever said that "the news is what we tell you it is," or anything akin to such a statement, as alleged in Paragraph 28. Defendant specifically denies that the FCC or Communications Act of 1934 were discussed or even mentioned at the meeting alleged in Paragraph 28, or that Plaintiffs protested the legality of Defendant's conduct.

29. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit G, which speaks for itself. Defendant specifically denies Plaintiffs' characterization of the import and meaning of Exhibit G, specifically that Exhibit G was Plaintiffs' "reaffirming" their commitment to fair and accurate reporting.

30. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit H, which speaks for itself and which reiterated Plaintiffs' existing obligations of confidentiality under the parties' Employment Agreements and specifically denies that Exhibit H was an attempt to purchase Plaintiffs' silence, because Plaintiffs were already bound by the provisions of Exhibits A and B. Defendant specifically denies Plaintiffs' characterization of the import and meaning of Exhibit H, specifically that Exhibit H "contemplated Plaintiffs' dropping their ethical objections." Defendant admits that its news managers were anxious to complete the pre-broadcast review process and that no headway was made in the following weeks.

31. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit I from Ms. Akre to Ms. Forrest, bearing the date of May 23, 1997, which speaks for itself, and of Exhibit J from Mr. Wilson to Ms. Forrest, bearing the date of May 28, 1997, which acknowledged "a lot of continued progress" and which speaks for itself.

32. Defendant specifically denies the statements attributed to Ms Forrest in Paragraph 32. On the contrary, Defendant admits that its attorney, Ms Forrest, advised Plaintiffs that Defendant's internal standard for accuracy demanded that any statements in a broadcast report challenged by suit be provably true on a motion for summary judgment and that Plaintiffs' continued insistence on including language in their report that would fail this standard was unacceptable and exposed Defendant to unnecessarily risky and expensive litigation. Defendant further admits that Plaintiffs resisted such a standard during the subject conversation.

33. Defendant denies that Plaintiffs ever followed, fully and accurately, Defendant's editing instructions for the BGH report but admits that Plaintiffs continued to present documentation that did not support their position. Defendant admits that it tried to work with Plaintiff in showing how the documentation did not support their logic, all to no avail. Defendant admits that it alerted Plaintiff Akre that she might be subject to a change in job duties upon the arrival of a new news manager in June, consistent with the parties' written employment agreement. Defendant further admits that, in fact, Plaintiff Akre was assigned a daily news story, to which she vehemently objected and which assignment she discharged in an unsatisfactory manner.

34. Defendant admits that, once again, it expended considerable resources at an all-day meeting on July 11, 1997, with Plaintiffs, outside counsel, and the news director. Defendant further admits that at the conclusion of that meeting, save one or two changes that Plaintiffs agreed to make but later failed to make, the scripts were acceptable to Defendant's news managers and news counsel. Defendant denies that any new air dates were set for the BGH reports.. Defendant admits that Exhibit K is a first-cut video of the reports and that the video reports never progressed beyond a first-cut stage.

35. Defendant admits that Mr. Metlin, News Director for Defendant, telephonically advised Plaintiffs that Defendant would be exercising the "out" in the Plaintiffs' employment contracts according to the procedure set forth in Paragraph 2(C) of Exhibits A and B, while Plaintiffs were vacationing together at their home in North Carolina. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit L and further admits that Defendant mailed each Plaintiff a copy of the notice in accord with the parties' agreement within the contract's notice period, admits that Plaintiff Akre was notified by the U.S. Post Office on multiple occasions both at Plaintiffs' vacation home in North Carolina and at their permanent Florida home, admits that both letters addressed to Plaintiff Akre eventually were returned as "unclaimed" mail, admits that Plaintiff Wilson stated he received his notice only because he mistakenly thought it was something else, and admits further that Mr. Metlin also provided Plaintiffs via hand delivery a copy of the notice.

36. Defendant admits that only after Plaintiffs knew their employment would end on December 2, 1997, and only after the contractual notice period had closed did Plaintiff Wilson, for the first time, claim that Defendant's pre-broadcast review of the BGH reports violated the Communications Act of 1934 and claim, also for the first time, that Plaintiffs were being ordered to slant the BGH reports. Defendant admits further that in a meeting with Mr. Metlin in late September Plaintiffs told Mr. Metlin they were unhappy with the changes in the scripts to which they had previously agreed and wanted to start the process over, from the beginning. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit M, which speaks for itself.

37. Defendant admits that after Plaintiffs knew their employment would end on December 2, 1997, and after the contractual notice period had closed, Plaintiff Akre claimed, for the first time, that Defendant's pre-broadcast review of the BGH reports violated the Communications Act of 1934. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit N, which speaks for itself. Defendant specifically denies that Plaintiff Akre failed to receive proper notice of her termination, but admits that Plaintiff Akre knew her husband, Plaintiff Wilson, had received his notice of termination via certified mail at a time and place where she resided with him and waited until the notice period had closed before claiming she had not received notice.

38. Defendant admits that Mr. Metlin asked Plaintiffs to make one final effort to produce scripts that were broadcast-worthy. Defendant further admits that Mr. Boylan suspended Plaintiffs for ten days without pay for the insubordination evidenced by their abandonment of the review process and by their backtracking on previously agreed-upon changes. Admits that Defendant's letter to Plaintiffs informing them fully of the reasons for their suspension is attached to the Amended Complaint as Exhibit S, which is Ms. Forrest's accurate summary of the history of the parties' relations. Defendant denies that Mr. Metlin directed Plaintiffs to prepare two versions of the scripts, as alleged in Paragraph 38, but admits that Plaintiffs asked whether Mr. Metlin would review a brand-new version of the scripts as they wanted them broadcast, if they prepared such a version on their own initiative.

39. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 39, as evidenced by Exhibit O.

40. Defendant admits that Plaintiffs claimed they were working at home on the BGH reports during their period of suspension and further admits they were not permitted access to Defendant's facilities during the suspension period, without making arrangements in advance with Mr. Metlin. Defendant admits that Plaintiffs months earlier had demanded and received the privilege of working at their home on the BGH reports and further admits that any of the "reporters' records and notes" stored in the Defendant's computer were duplicated in the Plaintiffs' files at home. Defendant denies that Mr. Boylan ever instructed or suggested to Plaintiffs that they work without pay during their period of suspension and denies that Mr. Boylan ever "recanted" any such instruction and admits further that, in fact, Plaintiffs were paid during the suspension period based on their claims that they were working at home on the BGH series. Defendant admits the authenticity of Exhibit O, which speaks for itself.

41. Defendant denies that Plaintiffs were assigned to complete two additional script versions and denies that Exhibits Q and R were scripts submitted to Defendant for review, as evidenced by the marginalia on Exhibit Q and the copyright symbol on Exhibit R. Defendant admits the authenticity of composite Exhibit P, which exhibit speaks for itself. Defendant denies that Defendant ordered Plaintiffs to produce anything other than a script that meets Defendant's broadcast standards for fairness and accuracy, as opposed to Plaintiffs' desire to broadcast sensationalized, one-sided, inaccurate, and unreviewed reports.

42. Defendant admits that in the fall of 1997, the parties entered into settlement negotiations in order to end the controversy, which negotiations were unsuccessful ultimately and according to which Plaintiffs would be paid for the second year of their respective contracts, at full salary and benefits, as station consultants, which proposition was agreeable to Plaintiffs. In the context of those negotiations, Defendant admits Plaintiff Wilson expressed putative suspicion that Defendant would stop the second-year payments despite any proposed consulting agreement, and in that context, Defendant admits that Mr. Boylan told him the payments would be continued beyond December 1, 1997. Defendant admits further that Plaintiffs escalated and changed their demands until, finally, Mr. Roberts, senior employment counsel to Fox Inc., informed Plaintiffs via facsimile transmission that their termination would be effective on December 2, 1997, as they had been informed previously during the notice period.. Defendant denies that Mr. Boylan gave Plaintiffs his personal assurances that their BGH report would be broadcast, without qualification.

43. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 43.

44. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 44.

45. Defendant denies that it retaliated against Plaintiffs, and, further:

a. Denies the allegations of Paragraph 45(a);

b. Admits the authenticity of Exhibit S, which speaks for itself, and admits the Plaintiffs had proved themselves impossible to work with by anyone's standards, and admits further that Plaintiffs' own refusal to have their work edited made them unsuitable journalists, but denies that Defendant ever ordered Plaintiffs to broadcast false and misleading news reports;

c. Denies that Plaintiffs' suspension in any way violated the parties' employment contracts or was triggered by Exhibits M and N, but admits that Plaintiffs' abandonment of the review process, as announced by Plaintiffs to Mr. Metlin, was the cause for their suspension;

d. Denies that Defendant ever ordered Plaintiffs to work without pay, admits that Plaintiffs' access to Defendant's facilities was limited during their suspension; and denies that the material in the Defendant's computer was necessary to Plaintiffs' labors, as Plaintiffs already possessed such materials on their home computers and Defendant offered to give Plaintiffs hard copies of anything they specified;

e. Admits that, based upon Plaintiffs' claims they worked during their period of suspension, Defendant paid Plaintiffs their ordinary wages and further admits that their period of suspension, indeed, was extended while Defendant continued to evaluate the situation;

f. Denies the allegations of Paragraph 45(f); and

g. Denies that Plaintiff Akre was given any work assignment as punitive retaliation, and admits that ratings rose when another employee took over the weekend anchor duties.

COUNT I

Breach of Contract

46. Admits for jurisdiction purposes only but denies that Plaintiffs, or either of them, have any meritorious claim for breach of contract.

47. Admits

48. Admits.

49. Admits that Defendant hired Plaintiffs to be on-the-air investigative reporters, and further admits that Plaintiff Wilson was employed part-time, without any benefits, and Plaintiff Akre was employed full-time, with benefits.

50. Admits.

51. Denies that Plaintiffs fully and faithfully discharged their contractual obligations and admits that Plaintiffs' unreasonable and intemperate behavior throughout their employment was expensive, disruptive, and did not advance Defendant's interests in providing quality news programming to its viewers.

52. Denies the allegations of Paragraph 52.

53. Denies that the Agreement provided Plaintiff Akre with any sort of guarantee of particular job assignments, and admits that Plaintiff Akre was relieved of her weekend anchor duties when she vacationed and when she was suspended and further admits that her replacement generated higher audience ratings and was a more suitable weekend anchor.

54. Denies that Defendant failed to give timely notice to Plaintiff Akre in accord with Paragraph 2(C) of the parties' Agreement and admits that Defendant removed Plaintiff Akre from its employ effective December 2, 1997, in accord with the parties' Agreement.

55. Denies.

56. Defendant denies it breached the parties' Employment Agreements, and is without knowledge of Plaintiffs' damages, therefore denies same, and demands strict proof thereof.

57. Defendant is without knowledge of the allegations in Paragraph 57, therefore denies same and demands strict proof thereof.

WHEREFORE Defendant demands that this action be dismissed and Plaintiffs take nothing.

COUNT II

Declaratory Judgment

58. Admits for jurisdictional purposes only, but denies that Plaintiffs have made out a claim for declaratory relief.

59. Denies that Plaintiffs are entitled to declaratory relief, upon the pleaded or any statement of unpleaded facts.

60. Defendant admits the terms of the parties' employment contracts, denies that Defendant ever ordered Plaintiffs to perform any task that violated law or the terms of those contracts, and denies that the FCC has any rules or regulations regarding "rigging and slanting of the news," as alleged in Paragraph 60.

61. Defendant admits the terms of the parties' employment contracts, but denies that it directed Plaintiffs to do anything to jeopardize Defendant's FCC license.

62. Defendant admits the terms of the parties' employment contracts, admits that more than 180 days have passed since Plaintiffs' last date of employment with Defendant, and denies that Defendant's conduct renders any of the contract provisions void or voidable at the instance of the Plaintiffs.

63. Defendant admits the terms of the parties' contracts and admits that it presently has unasserted and unthreatened multiple remedies against Plaintiffs for their conduct, both during and after their employment with Defendant.

64. Defendant admits the terms of the parties' contracts and admits that Plaintiffs retain possession of materials belonging to Defendant and admits further that Plaintiffs have improperly disseminated some of those materials, in violation of their contractual obligations.

65. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 65.

WHEREFORE Defendant demands this action be dismissed and that Plaintiffs take nothing.

 

COUNT III

Whistle-blower Act Violation

66. Admits for jurisdictional purposes only, but denies that Plaintiffs have any claim under the Florida Private Whistleblower Act.

67. Defendant admits the allegations of Paragraph 67.

68. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 68 and further denies that Defendant behaved as Plaintiffs alleged earlier in their Amended Complaint.

69. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 69 and its sub-parts.

70. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 70, but admits that Plaintiffs wrote many memoranda to Defendant's news managers and counsel, expressing their feelings about the pre-broadcast review process, none of them mentioning any law, rule or regulation Defendant allegedly was violating until after they knew they had been terminated.

71. Defendant is without knowledge of Plaintiffs' mental condition, therefore denies same and demands strict proof thereof, and otherwise denies the allegations of Paragraph 71.

72. Defendant denies the allegations of Paragraph 72.

WHEREFORE Defendant demands that this action be dismissed and that Plaintiffs take nothing.

ALL ALLEGATIONS NOT SPECIFICALLY ADMITTED ARE DENIED.

 

AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSES

First Affirmative Defense

As a first affirmative defense, Plaintiff Akre has failed to state a cause of action for breach of contract in that Defendant mailed its notices to Plaintiffs pursuant to Paragraph 2(C) of the parties' Agreements, by certified mail, return receipt requested, in a timely fashion, and Plaintiff Akre's refusal to respond to three notices of attempted delivery by the U.S. Postal Service is tantamount to her receipt of the notice. Copies of the postal receipts and of the fronts of the returned envelopes are attached hereto and incorporated herein as composite Exhibit 2.

Second Affirmative Defense

As a second affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under Florida's Whistleblower Act in that neither Plaintiff advised Defendant in writing or otherwise of a law, rule, or regulation Defendant allegedly was violating.

Third Affirmative Defense

As a third affirmative defense, Plaintiffs' own misconduct in misappropriating the property of Defendant by posting scripts and the videotape of the BGH reports on their World Wide Web site and by exhibiting the videotape during a professional meeting in June, 1997, and by otherwise making improper use of Defendant's property, all without consent or foreknowledge of Defendant and even after receiving Defendant's demand for the return of its property (attached hereto and incorporated herein as Exhibit 3) violates Defendant's contractual and intellectual property rights, amounts to a breach of the express terms of the parties' contract, and precludes Plaintiffs' recovery on any theory of law or equity.

Fourth Affirmative Defense

As a fourth affirmative defense, throughout practically the entire course of their employment with Defendant, Plaintiffs violated the terms of confidentiality of the parties' contracts and their common-law duty of loyalty that every employee owes to his or her employer by disparaging Defendant to third parties and by revealing particulars of Defendant's pre-broadcast review process, including attorney-client communications.

Fifth Affirmative Defense

As a fifth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs' own contentious, argumentative, ad hominem, and vituperative conduct and their refusal to abide by Defendant's established policies and procedures were the sole reasons for Defendant's decision to terminate their employment.

Sixth Affirmative Defense

As a sixth affirmative defense, Defendant's insistence upon fair, accurate and balanced news reporting does not violate any law, rule or regulation.

Seventh Affirmative Defense

As a seventh affirmative defense, Defendant's insistence upon fair, accurate and balanced news reporting does not violate the parties' contracts.

Eighth Affirmative Defense

As an eighth affirmative defense, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution prohibit judicial review of Defendant's news judgments and the exercise of editorial discretion, consistent with the guarantees of a free press.

Ninth Affirmative Defense

As a ninth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a real and present controversy, sufficient to warrant a declaratory judgment by the court.

Tenth Affirmative Defense

As a tenth affirmative defense, Plaintiff Akre breached the parties' contract by failing and refusing to perform either the quantity or quality of work contemplated by the terms of her employment.

Eleventh Affirmative Defense

As an eleventh affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action in that the Federal Communications Commission's "rigging and slanting" doctrine is more in the nature of that agency's obiter dictum, and is not a "law, rule, or regulation" within the meaning of Florida Statutes 448.102.

Twelfth Affirmative Defense

As a twelfth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action in that pursuant to the express terms of the parties' contracts, Plaintiffs had no contractual right to any particular job, and Defendant was entitled to give the Plaintiffs any job assignment it deemed advisable.

 

Thirteenth Affirmative Defense

As a thirteenth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs' own admitted unfamiliarity in working with attorneys during the pre-broadcast review process and their refusal to be edited or to abide by Defendant's journalistic standards make them unsuitable for reporting jobs.

Fourteenth Affirmative Defense

As a fourteenth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim in that threatening to disclose their displeasure to the FCC for a news report that had not been broadcast is not the type of conduct protected by Florida's Whistleblower Act.

Fifteenth Affirmative Defense

As a fifteenth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action in that the FCC does not intrude upon issues of editorial discretion or the exercise of news judgment, as a matter of long-standing policy, and, thus, the FCC would be without jurisdiction to adjudicate any complaint filed by Plaintiffs on the facts alleged.

Sixteenth Affirmative Defense

As a sixteenth affirmative defense, Plaintiff Akre is estopped from claiming she did not receive notice of her termination.

Seventeenth Affirmative Defense

As a seventeenth affirmative defense, any damages suffered by Plaintiffs are attributable solely to their own conduct.

 

Eighteenth Affirmative Defense.

As an eighteenth affirmative defense, Defendant is entitled to a set-off to any damages claimed by Plaintiffs for the consequences of Plaintiffs' conduct during and after their employment with Defendant, including, but not limited to, their campaign of malicious disparagement of Defendant and its employees and Defendant's related entities.

Nineteenth Affirmative Defense

As a nineteenth affirmative defense, Plaintiffs have failed to state a cause of action for whistleblower relief in that their claims of the unlawfulness of Defendant's conduct did not start until after they knew they were being terminated.

Respectfully submitted,

 

 

PATRICIA FIELDS ANDERSON, ESQ.

Fla. Bar # 352871

RAHDERT, ANDERSON, McGOWAN & STEELE, P.A.

535 Central Avenue

St. Petersburg, FL 33701

727 / 823-4191

727 / 823-6189 (fax)

Attorney for Defendant NEW WORLD

 


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