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RIVOLI v. GANNETT CO.

July 29, 2004.

MICHELE LOCASTRO RIVOLI, Plaintiff,
v.
GANNETT CO., INC., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DAVID LARIMER, Chief Judge, District

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Michele Locastro Rivoli, commenced this action against her former employer, Gannett Co., Inc. ("Gannett"), alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Gannett has moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted, and the complaint is dismissed.

BACKGROUND

  Although the fifty-page complaint contains lengthy factual allegations, they may be summarized as follows. Plaintiff was formerly a reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle ("D&C") newspaper, which is owned by Gannett, and distributed in Rochester, New York. In the Fall of 1999, plaintiff discovered that the Monroe County District Attorney's Office ("D.A.'s Office") had mishandled certain felonies in a number of respects.*fn1 With her editors' approval, plaintiff undertook to investigate the matter further. When she did so, she discovered even more problems concerning unresolved felony cases.

  Plaintiff's first story on the subject was published on page 1 of the February 18, 2001 D&C. Complaint ¶ 51. Several more stories followed, as well as editorials critical of the D.A.'s Office. (The editorials were not written by plaintiff.)

  Howard Relin, the then-District Attorney, publicly denied the stories' accusations, or attempted to explain them away or to shift blame to others. At an interview on February 27, 2001, Relin allegedly told plaintiff that she had an ax to grind, that she was unprofessional, and that she should not call the D.A.'s Office because no one would speak to her. Complaint ¶ 65.

  At around the same time, Relin began calling plaintiff's editors and members of Gannett's management to complain about the stories. After one such phone call, plaintiff's editors summoned plaintiff to a meeting, where they told her that Relin was powerful, had been a good source of news stories over the years, and should be treated "nicely." Complaint ¶ 67. They also told her that they had agreed that any further questions for Relin about the subject of the stories would be submitted to him in written form. Plaintiff was allowed to continue her investigation, however, and additional stories by her on the subject were published in the D&C.

  On March 13, 2001, at Relin's request, he met with plaintiff and several members of the D&C's top management, including Publisher Dave Hunke, and Executive Editor Karen Magnuson. The meeting was relatively cordial, and Relin indicated that he was open to an independent audit of his office concerning the questioned felony prosecutions. Complaint ¶¶ 78-80.

  Later that day, however, Relin called the D&C and said that he had changed his mind, and would not agree to an outside audit. Complaint ¶ 83. More stories and negative editorials followed over the next several days.

  As plaintiff pursued her investigation, she continued to discover more problems at the D.A.'s Office. On March 28, 2001, she asked her editors for permission to investigate and report on one such problem concerning unclaimed bail money. The complaint does not state whether they granted that request; it does allege, however, that later that day, a "confidential source" told plaintiff that her job was in jeopardy. Complaint ¶ 118.

  Some time in late March 2001, Relin suggested that plaintiff's editors contact certain individuals to ask them for their opinions of plaintiff. They did so.

  The next day, two of plaintiff's editors, Robert Finnerty and Rick Armon, called plaintiff and told her that they were not going to run any more stories about the pending unresolved felonies. They told her that this was a "business decision" that they had made based on conversations with Relin and the individuals whose names had been given to them by Relin. Complaint ¶ 126. The editors refused to name those individuals, but they told plaintiff that those persons had questioned plaintiff's objectivity.

  Finnerty and Armon also told plaintiff that the decision to "cool" her investigation had been approved by Magnuson, the Executive Editor. A short time after this conversation, plaintiff spoke to Finnerty, Armon, and Magnuson, and Magnuson reiterated that stopping the stories was a "business decision." Complaint ¶ 129.

  About an hour later, Magnuson called plaintiff and asked her if she knew what slander was. Magnuson told plaintiff that if plaintiff were to "tell anyone what we did, we'll consider it slander against the company." Complaint ¶ 130. Magnuson added that plaintiff's life would become unpleasant if she did not "play ball." Id.

  Magnuson also told plaintiff, though, that plaintiff was going to be given an award for her stories about the D.A.'s Office. A ceremony was held at the D&C offices that afternoon, and plaintiff was given an award and a $125 check. After the ceremony, though, she was again admonished not to discuss the situation with anyone. Complaint ¶¶ 133-34.

  Plaintiff and her editors continued to clash over the matter, however. On March 30, plaintiff learned that Relin was going to hold a press conference to discuss felony cases. When she told Finnerty about this, he said, "That couldn't be true; that's not part of the. . . ." "Deal, Bob?," plaintiff responded. "It isn't part of the deal?" Finnerty made no reply. Complaint ¶ 142.

  Later that day, Finnerty told plaintiff that Magnuson was angry at Relin and that Magnuson wanted plaintiff to cover Relin's April 2 press conference. On April 3, the D&C published a story by plaintiff about the conference, at which Relin announced the formation of a "Permanent Committee to Track and Resolve Felony Cases." The story also reported that Governor Pataki had asked the New York State Commission of Investigation ("COI") to look into the allegations about the mishandling of felonies by the D.A.'s Office. This turned out to be plaintiff's last published story about the D.A.'s Office. Complaint ¶¶ 143-46. Again, plaintiff and her editors continued to butt heads over matters in the D.A.'s Office. Finnerty told her that no more stories on the topic would be published until after the COI investigation was complete. Plaintiff again brought up the alleged "deal" with Relin. Finnerty told her that if she did not stop talking about the "deal," she would never again write a front-page story. Complaint ¶ 151.

  Finnerty also told plaintiff that if she did tell anyone about the "deal," he would deny its existence. Plaintiff responded that it did not matter because she had tape recorded prior telephone conversations with Finnerty when plaintiff was initially pulled from the stories. Finnerty told plaintiff that she was off the stories for good, and that she would never write another page-one story. Complaint ¶¶ 152-54.

  On April 4, 2001, a meeting was held with plaintiff, her union president, Finnerty and Magnuson. At one point, plaintiff mentioned that Magnuson had called her at home and threatened plaintiff with a slander lawsuit. Magnuson initially denied this, but when Finnerty told her that plaintiff had been taping her telephone ...


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