IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR THE THIRTEENTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT
IN AND FOR HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FLORIDA
GENERAL CIVIL DIVISION
[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.
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 stations 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 states 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 WORLDs 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 WORLDs 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 WORLDs 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 WTVTs parent corporation transmitted the letter to DEFENDANTs 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 owner¼" 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 stations 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 WORLDs 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 WTVTs 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 DEFENDANTs 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 stations 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 "wasnt 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 youre 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 companys 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 counsels allegations of irresponsible journalism and reaffirming a commitment to "fair, accurate and honest reporting above all else." A true copy of WILSONs 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 Defendants counsel Carolyn Forrest. "I dont 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 doesnt 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 DEFENDANTS 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 DEFENDANTS 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 stations 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 stations "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. Metlins 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 Forrests 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. DEFENDANTS 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 DEFENDANTS 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 WORLDs 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 PLAINTIFFs 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 AKREs 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.
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 AKREs 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 Akres 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.
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 DEFENDANTs 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 attorneys 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 Employees 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.
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.
Steve Wenzel, Esq.
Attorneys for the PLAINTIFFS
(NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS)
Response to the Complaint:
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