Judge Saffold Files $50M Suit Against Cleveland Newspaper Over Online Comments

Judge Shirley Strickland Safford's lawyer says it was her daughter.

April 6, 2010, 8:46 PM

April 7, 2010— -- An Ohio judge filed suit today against a Cleveland newspaper that said she may have commented anonymously on its Web site about cases before the court.

Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and her daughter, Sydney Saffold, are seeking $50 million from the Plain Dealer and Advance Internet for disclosing private information. The complaint alleges that the Plain Dealer conspired with the entities that controlled the site's confidential registration database to release information that was promised to be anonymous, according to a statement issued by the judge's lawyer, Brian Spitz

"I'm very disappointed that Sydney became publically involved after the Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com broke their promise not to disclose our personal information," Judge Saffold said in the statement.

The Cuyahoga County judge may have used the newspaper's site, Cleveland.com, to post up to 80 comments under stories, including ones regarding cases Saffold was presiding over, the newspaper said. According to Saffold and her attorney, Spitz, any comments from the username "lawmiss" connected to cases involving Saffold were most likely left by the judge's 23-year-old daughter, Sydney, an aspiring law student.

"She is judicially precluded from commenting on any case before her," Spitz said of Judge Saffold.

The suit, said Spitz, is based on the contractual promises in the newspaper's Privacy Statement, "which expressly provides in the first paragraph that the website will 'protect your privacy.' The Privacy Policy also expressly provides that "personally identifying information is protected."

The username "lawmiss" is connected to an e-mail account registered to Judge Saffold, according to Goldberg, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Spitz contends that this is in fact a family e-mail account set up by Saffold's ex-husband.

"The account was jointly set up," Spitz said, adding that he isn't even certain other members of the family, including the ex-husband, didn't also leave comments on the Web site under the username.

"I haven't talked with ex-husband or anybody else in the family yet -- there's 80 comments and I haven't been able to sit down and go through every comment yet," he said.

Spitz also said that Judge Saffold may have used the name to comment on other stories, including perhaps stories on the Cleveland Browns football team, but that was something he was still trying to determine with his clients as they go through the list of comments

The comments came to light on March 26, after the newspaper reported that a user going by the name "lawmiss" connected to the e-mail address of Judge Saffold had allegedly made "opinionated online comments relating to some of the judge's high-profile cases, including that of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell."

"We filed a public records request and found that a computer in the judge's office was on the Web site at the time three of the comments was left," Goldberg said, adding they were unable to track any of the other comments to a specific location.

Judge Saffold is presiding over the capitol-murder case of Sowell, 50, accused of killing 11 women. The trial is in preliminary stages. According to reports, Sims wants Safford to recuse herself from the case and have it moved to a different county. This came after the Plain Dealer reported "lawmiss" allegedly wrote about Sims after the sentencing of one of his clients, a transit driver sentenced to six months for vehicular homicide.

"Rufus Sims did a disservice to his client," the Nov. 21, 2009, post said according to the paper. "If only he could shut his Amos and Andy style mouth. What makes him think that is [sic] he insults and acts like buffon [sic] that it will cause the judge to think and see it his way. There are so many lawyers that could've done a much better job. This was not a tough case, folks. She should've hired a lawyer with the experience to truly handle her needs. Amos and Andy, shuffling around did not do it."

That comment was not tied to Saffold's courthouse computer, Goldberg said, and after it was allegedly posted the newspaper removed it for violating the community rules on Cleveland.com, baring personal attacks.

"Lawmiss" was originally spotted by an online editor for Cleveland.com last month, after the user allegedly posted a personal attack against a family member of a Plain Dealer reporter Jim Ewinger, Goldberg said.

"People make critical comments of the staff and we don't have a problem with that, the reason this comment was noticed was because it wasn't about the reporter, it was about the mental health of a family member of the reporter," Goldberg said, adding that she wouldn't elaborate about the comment, but did say the Ewinger had covered Judge Saffold in past reports.

Goldberg said the online editor was able to access the e-mail address registered with the name "lawmiss" and after a simple Google search, determine that address was connected to Saffold. The fact that the Web editor looked into the e-mail address associated with an anonymous commentor and tracked down a person associated with that, and the paper then reported those findings to the public has drawn the ire of some commentors on Cleveland.com.

Goldberg acknowledges that people have since complained to her about what some perceive as a violation of privacy by the editor and the paper. Goldberg said that the paper acted appropriately after discovering the e-mail allegedly is connected to Judge Saffold.

"I think we did what we had to do, based on the facts. Once you start pulling on the string, there's no way to wrap it back up into a neat ball," Goldberg said.

"The only thing we did that the public couldn't do was figure out whose e-mail was associated with those comments in the first place," Goldberg said.

According to Goldberg, two other comments allegedly posted by "lawmiss" were directly related to two death penalty cases presided over by Saffold aside from the Sowell case. Those were the RTA bus driver case in which the commentator allegedly made the comments about Sims, and a triple-murder trial that resulted in the conviction of a Cleveland firefighter.

"If a black guy had massacred five people then he would've received the death penalty," the Plain Dealer alleges lawmiss stated in a May 22, 2008, post about the sentencing the firefighter, Terrance Hough Jr., to life without parole. "A white guy does it and he gets pat on the hand. The jury didn't care about the victims. They were set to cut him loose from day one. All of them ought to be ashamed."

However, Sydney Saffold, Judge Saffold's 23-year-old daughter, stepped forward shortly after the Plain Dealer contacted Judge Safford about their findings two weeks ago to take responsibility for some of the comments.

"Sydney made comments," Spitz said to ABC News.

According to Spitz, Sydney made at least five comments under the name "lawmiss," due in part to her keen interest in her mother's cases and the judicial system in general.

"Sydney was in law school, she is currently reapplying to law school," Spitz said, adding that because of Sydney's desire to become a lawyer, she spent a lot of time sitting, watching, and talking to people in her mother's courthouse as well as watching her mother's trials, eventually leading her to comment about them on the Plain Dealer Web site.

"It's part of her interest," Spitz said.

Goldberg said she wasn't sure whether Sydney, who lives three hours away in Columbus, was responsible for the comments. Her main priority was after discovering the alleged connection to Judge Saffold to make it public to make sure she was an impartial judge.

"Judge Saffold has a very rich and colorful history in this community," Goldberg said, adding this wasn't the first time Saffold's name has surfaced in regard to the newspaper.

Saffold once ordered the arrest of a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who refused to give up a source and has been criticized on the newspaper's pages for some of her judicial decisions, Goldberg said. In 1996 Ewinger, the reporter whose family member's mental state was allegedly commented on by "lawmiss," reported on comments made by Judge Saffold to a woman who pleaded guilty to credit card fraud.

"Men are easy," Ewinger reported the judge allegedly told the woman. "You can go sit at the bus stop, put on a short skirt, cross your legs and pick up 25. Ten of them will give you their money. It's the truth. If you don't pick up the first 10, then all you got to do is open your legs a little bit and cross them at the bottom and then they'll stop."

In response to Ewinger's reports, Spitz said, "We think that when a newspaper drudges up alleged comments made ten years ago, it reflects on their agenda as to not reporting current events."

"Lawmiss" allegedly began posting in 2007, on a wide range of topics including the inner workings of the Cuyahoga County government, the Cleveland Browns' quarterback competition, and conditions at a local golf course, Goldberg said.

If the comments allegedly regarding cases were in fact written by Judge Saffold, it would be a major ethics violation, according to Professor Christopher M. Fairman of the Ohio State Moritz College of Law.

"This is a complete violation of the code of judicial ethics if this is in fact true. She can't be doing things on her own outside the courtroom, just as we wouldn't want jurors to be forming their own opinions outside the courtroom," Fairman said.

If it was in fact the daughter, Fairman said she is a private citizen and able to do what she wants.

"However, if Judge Saffold knew her daughter was doing this, then I believe that Saffold had an obligation to act and put a stop to it," Fairman said. "I have never seen a case like this before. It is a doozy. If the mother is having her daughter fall on the sword, that is pretty unseemly."

Michael Fertik, author of the book "Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier" and creator of Reputation Defender, a company specializing in helping people combat libel online, cautioned against a rush to judgment in this case.

"Online forensics are tough to do right. There is certainly more investigation that needs to be done before this case can be declared closed," Fertik told ABC News. "Depending on how the judge's computers are configured, several computers could appear to share an IP address. Many comment systems can also be hacked by malicious users who would to frame an innocent party."

Fertik said so-called "impersonation attacks" are among the most dangerous to a person because it is nearly impossible to prove you didn't leave a comment attributed to your e-mail account or an IP address associated with you, both of which can be manipulated.

"All too often online, many bloggers and Internet commenters will see just one piece of evidence and rush to judgment. The pitchforks and torches are out long before anything can be verified," Fertik said.

Since the Plain Dealer's first report, Advanced Internet, which runs the technical side of Cleveland.com and is owned by their parent company, has blocked the newspaper's access to e-mail addresses of commentators.

Sims, who could not be reached for comment, asked Judge Saffold to step down in four of his cases, reports say. Saffold rejected three of those requests, according to reports. On Monday Saffold said she would wait at least one more week to decide if she'll step down from the Sowell case, and Sims is considering bringing this to the Ohio Supreme Court, the Plain Dealer reported. Spitz said he could not comment on anything related to cases currently before Judge Saffold.

"This has been a very traumatic series of events for a mother and daughter," Spitz said. "The Plain Dealer should have respected the anonymity that was promised."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events