Thursday, August 16, 2007

I Guess They Never Heard of HIPAA

It was another long day at the News-Press NLRB hearing yesterday. I'm not going to attempt to completely recap everything that went on. For that I'll refer you to Matt Kettmann's comprehensive account posted over at the Independent's website.

Instead, I want to focus on the very personal story of one of the former News-Press journalists that came out of yesterday's proceedings.

In every long trial or hearing, especially one in which emotions and passions run high, as they do in the NLRB vs. News-Press case, you always wonder who is going to make the first borderline move, land the first low blow or deal the first card from the bottom of the deck. I'd say that moment occurred late Wednesday afternoon during Scott Steepleton's testimony.

Steepleton was being questioned by the paper's attorney, Barry Cappello, about the performance evaluations of newsroom staff who were members of the union. One of the evaluations that was introduced into evidence was that of Melissa Evans, who had covered religion for the paper and who was ultimately fired for her role in the freeway overpass incident.

The NLRB is alleging that union members were given poor performance reviews to punish them for their allegiance to the union. The paper maintains that the poor reviews were legitimately merited.

The written review of Evans written by Steepleton that was introduced into evidence specifically mentioned a month long leave of absence from the paper that she took last fall and another reference to the effect that her head sometimes seemed to be someplace other than work.

It was somewhere around this point in the questioning that Cappello asked Steepleton whether he was concerned about Evans perhaps having "a substance abuse problem."

That question brought an immediate and vigorous objection from Union attorney Ira Gottlieb. Judge William Kocol overruled the objection indicating that he thought the question was relevant. Gottlieb then raised the objection of employee privacy and asked that if the question was going to be allowed then the courtroom should be cleared and that portion of the the hearing closed to all persons other than the parties. The judge stated that would not solve the problem as an audio recording was being made of the proceedings and that recording would become a public record.

Allowed to proceed, Steepleton answered that the paper had gotten a call about Evans' physical condition and that the News-Press Human Resources Director Yolanda Apodaca had spoken to her about it. He added that the references in the evaluation to her leave of absence and her head being elsewhere were indeed allusions to that subject. At that point the questioning moved onto other areas.

Around 6 pm yesterday evening I got a call from Evans. She said she had been told about what happened at the hearing that afternoon (as one of the subpoenaed witnesses who will be testifying she is excluded from the courtroom). I told her that I did not plan on writing about it at that point but that there were other reporters present in the audience when the testimony was given, including Hannah Guzik from the News-Press and I had no idea what they were planning to do. (Indeed, it was mentioned in this morning's Ventura County Star article.)

Evans was concerned that with "substance abuse" having been the term that was thrown out in the courtroom, without further explanation, people might speculate that the substance involved was a drug or illegal substance.

Evans told me she had been thinking about it and wanted to get the story out there. Here's what she had to say.

Last fall she went to Apodaca for help and told her that she needed to take a medical leave to get help for a drinking problem. Apodaca was extremely accommodating and assured Evans repeatedly that their conversation was confidential.

Evans returned to work in early November, and continued on without a word from Steepleton or Apodaca. Apodaca did visit her while she was in rehab which Evans though was very odd. Evans received her performance evaluation in December and didn’t see anything that would have connected her performance with her drinking. The statement about her head being elsewhere was never explained.

Evans believed the reasons for her leave of absence would remain private and confidential and had no idea it might be brought up in the NLRB hearing until last spring, when she received a call from Steve Wyllie, the attorney prosecuting the case on behalf of the NLRB. Her stomach sank.

In looking back on it now she says:

My decision was of my own volition; it was completely voluntary. I had never been verbally reprimanded for drinking - or being late, or not turning in stories, etc. - and never had a conversation with Scott about this decision. It was something I wanted to do for health reasons, and given the stress we were under at the time, I realized the only way I could do this was to take the extreme road and remove myself completely from the News-Press building. I do not regret my decision for a second.

Now that she's gone on the record about what happened, no one, not even the News-Press, can intimidate her by holding this private matter over her head. And by the way, she's been completely sober for nearly 11 months now.

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I guess Travis Armstrong believes that the best defense is an offense. And go on the offensive he did in his op-ed page column yesterday. Before he could have ever read a word of any other newspaper's account of the first day of the NLRB hearing he was arguing how virtually all of the other papers who are reporting the story are biased. After all, according to Armstrong the papers or the people in charge of them all either have axes to grind with the News-Press or stand to gain from any misfortune that might befall the News-Press.

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Things I'm learning at the hearing: Scott Steepleton seems to know where every newsroom employee stands on the question of union representation, except his wife.

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There's an ongoing discussion of the NLRB hearings over on Blogabarbara.

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The hearing resumes tomorrow at 9 am but if you're planning on dropping by to watch note, there is a change of location. The hearing will be held in a classroom at Santa Barbara College of Law, 20 E. Victoria Street. It should be very cozy in the room.

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