Supreme Court orders new trial in ex-Scientologist's suit against talk show

Detroit News, July 31, 1999

LANSING(AP) -- A lawsuit by a former member of the Church of Scientology against talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael must be retried, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Friday. A Washtenaw County Circuit Court jury received improper instructions before it ruled against Dorothy Jean Dickerson, the high court said in partially reversing a 1997 ruling by a state Court of Appeals panel.

The Albion woman in 1992 sued Raphael, her show's producer and those involved in recording a conversation with one of her daughters, alleging they violated Michigan's laws against eavesdropping. The Supreme Court ruling means Ms. Dickerson's lawsuit will be retried in Washtenaw County, said her attorney, Leo Januszewski of Ann Arbor.

Ms. Dickerson claimed her daughter, Valda Gratias, came to talk to her about involvement in Scientology as part of an effort to expose it. The women talked in an Ann Arbor park while Ms. Gratias wore a transmitting device that allowed their conversation and images to be recorded on equipment in a van nearby.

Audio and video portions of the women's' meeting were broadcast later on the Sally Jessy Raphael show, Januszewski said.

In its March 1997 ruling, the Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Raphael and other defendants that the conversation was not private because it was being secretly transmitted and anyone could pick it up on the airwaves.

"Defendants essentially seek a ruling that an intimate conversation between a mother and her daughter about family matters is no longer 'private' for purposes of the statutes as soon as it is surreptitiously broadcast," that ruling said.

The Supreme Court, largely ignoring the Court of Appeals ruling, said Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Melinda Morris should have told the original jury that the question of whether Ms. Dickerson's conversation was private depended "on whether she intended and reasonably expected it to be private at the time and under the circumstances involved."

The jury also was told incorrectly that "a conversation knowingly broadcast by a participant into the public airwaves is not private," the Supreme Court said, noting, " ... this is not an accurate statement of the law -- a participant may not unilaterally nullify other participants' expectations of privacy by secretly broadcasting the conversation."

Januszewski, who had praised the Court of Appeals ruling as a victory for personal privacy over talk-show exploitation, said Friday that he was prepared to continue arguing that the conversation between Ms. Dickerson and her daughter was private.

"It's kind of a middle ground," Januszewski said of the Supreme Court ruling. "The court says there has to be a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Gregory Curtner, an Ann Arbor attorney representing Raphael, her show's New York-based producer, Multimedia Entertainment Inc., and a local production company hired to record the conversation, did not return phone messages Friday evening.

Ms. Dickerson is no longer involved with the Church of Scientology, Januszewski said.

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