BOSTON (CN) - A federal judge threw out invasion-of-privacy claims against Howard Stern brought by a Massachusetts woman whose tax-related phone call with an IRS agent was inadvertently broadcast on the shock jock’s radio show.
U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs on Friday dismissed all claims against Stern and most against the federal government after finding that Judith Barrigas of Sandwich, Massachusetts, was unable to show deliberate malice when her personal information was disseminated.
Barrigas filed the federal complaint last year in Boston, nearly two years after she says her debut on satellite radio left her in a state of humiliation and anxiety.
On May 19, 2015, IRS agent Jimmy Forsythe was on hold with Sirius XM’s “The Howard Stern Show” when he got a call on another line from Judith Barrigas to discuss her outstanding tax liability.
Forsythe was still in the middle of his conversation with Barrigas when his call to Stern went on the air, inadvertently broadcasting Forsythe’s talk with Barrigas about her taxes.
In addition to her phone number, which Stern fans promptly began dialing up, Barrigas claims other personal information she shared during the course of the call was broadcast, including her tax return and refund issues and the details of a repayment plan for certain tax liabilities.
Stern’s program draws about 1.2 million listeners to Sirius XM every day. Barrigas accused Stern and his radio show of negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Stern countered with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which Judge Burroughs granted Friday.
“Although they might have become aware during the broadcast that Agent Forsythe was discussing taxes or collections generally, a specific individual was never named in relation to such information, and the telephone number was not disclosed until the final seconds of Agent Forsythe’s conversation with plaintiff,” Burroughs wrote. “It is unclear how broadcasting the statements of a caller to a radio show, who vaguely discusses tax amounts and repayment terms of an unspecified third party, constitutes an intentional invasion of the third party’s privacy.”
According to the 23-page ruling, Forsythe’s side of the conversation was the only part of the phone call that was broadcast and the other party would have remained unidentifiable and unaware if Forsythe had not stated Barrigas’ phone number – making it difficult to characterize the broadcast as malicious, even if Stern and other members of his show had not been cracking jokes throughout the call.
“Plaintiff’s name, social security number, address, or other identifying information were not disclosed. Neither the sound of her voice nor her communications to Agent Forsythe could be heard,” Burroughs wrote. “The only link between Plaintiff and the disclosure was the telephone number, which she admits was publicly listed and would have required an internet search to identify her.”
Barrigas accused the federal government of negligence, invasion of privacy and wrongful disclosure of tax information.
Judge Burroughs accepted the federal government’s argument that the Federal Tort Claims Act exempts it from negligence and privacy liability in matters that involve tax collection, absolving the IRS from claims based on Forsythe’s alleged negligence.
The government challenged Barrigas’ claim that it wrongfully released her tax information based on venue, but Burroughs found that Barrigas showed she was a Massachusetts resident when the IRS call was broadcast and still is a Bay State resident.
Representatives for the IRS and Stern did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment. Neither did Barrigas’ attorney, Sol Cohen of Cohen & Sales.
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