On Monday February 13, 2017, Judith Barrigas filed a negligence and an invasion of privacy civil suit against Howard Stern and his show on Sirius radio. Barrigas also filed suit against the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act and for an unlawful disclosure of her tax return. Barrigas’ suit is a result of a 2015 episode of Howard’s radio show in which a conversation she had with an IRS agent was publicly heard on air.
Howard Stern is no stranger to controversy. In fact, Stern owes his entire career to airing lewd, controversial or obscene topics and interviews on a daily basis for more than twenty years. However, sometimes Stern’s antics land him in the hot seat, the front page of the newspaper, as well as the court room. This newly filed Civil suit in Massachusetts seems to be the latter.
On May 19, 2015, Jimmy Forsythe, an IRS agent called into The Howard Stern Show. While on hold, Forsythe took a call from Barrigas who called him to discuss how the tax agency had applied prior year liabilities to her tax refund. Apparently, during this conversation, someone at Stern’s show heard what was happening and decided to air the discussion live on satellite radio. Barrigas assumed she was on a private conversation with Forsythe, which lasted for approximately forty-five minutes.
According to the complaint, Barrigas quickly realized that her personal information and phone number was being aired live on the show. The Original Petition states: “While on the phone with Agent Forsythe, Mrs. Barrigas suddenly began to receive a barrage of text messages and phone calls from unknown callers/individuals.” The lawsuit also states that the phone call in can still be accessed on the internet through The Howard Stern archives. Also, after what happened, Forsythe was put on administrative leave. As far as legal damages, Barrigas claims the “outrageous violation” of her privacy has resulted in difficulty finding employment, anxiety, loss of sleep and irregular eating patterns.
Barrigas is suing the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act and for an unlawful disclosure of her tax return. 28 U.S. Code § 2674 maps out the Liability of United States which states:
The United States shall be liable, respecting the provisions of this title relating to tort claims, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances, but shall not be liable for interest prior to judgment or for punitive damages.
Furthermore, she is also asserting negligence and an invasion of her privacy against Stern and his show. “The defendants breached their duty of reasonable care by broadcasting the private phone conversation between Mrs. Barrigas and the IRS on May 19, 2015, and thereby publicly disseminating private tax return and identity information of Mrs. Barrigas’s to over one million people worldwide,” states the lawsuit demanding compensatory and punitive damages.
There is precedent in similar matters. In Bartnicki v. Vopper, the Supreme Court protected a radio broadcaster who disclosed the contents of an illegally intercepted communication. That case turned on a media outlet’s lawful obtainment of tapes and the First Amendment. However, the facts differ slightly from the aforementioned case. Here, the IRS agent called in, but arguably there wasn’t much that was newsworthy about Barrigas’ tax situation.