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

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

ByABC News
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.