Naming Names

Ombudsman

October 17, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Some readers charge The Sun is being unfair to Dr. Neil Solomon by publishing stories about suits by three unidentified women patients who claim he committed sexual improprieties with them.

Most civil suits are and should be public record, may or may not seek big money and may make sensational claims. They are shaped by lawyers, who may or may not be conscious of headlines. They are not criminal cases with government documentation.

Suits may claim legitimate serious grievances or abuses not otherwise resolved. Or they may be hot air. Or somewhere in the middle. Maryland law allows judges to seal cases or parts of cases if the judge feels too much harm to someone could result from exposure of such sensitive issues as sexual matters, business secrets and financial worth.

Lawyers for plaintiffs in these cases must convince judges that specific exceptions should be made to the courtroom rules that require parties in a suit to be named, said Stephen M. Schenning, a Towson lawyer who represented a woman who claimed as a teen-ager she had been sexually abused by a priest. The court kept the woman's name from the public when she sued.

''There's no statute that provides for it, but the court has inherent authority in its discretion to rule upon the way a case is going to be presented,'' Mr. Schenning said. ''What it gets down to is a common-sense, fair way of proceeding.''

Dr. Solomon, but not the public, was informed right away who his accusers were, as was another defendant named in two cases. Two Baltimore City Circuit Court judges, Andre M. Davis in one case and Joseph P. McCurdy Jr. in the two other cases, sealed the names of the accusing women after their attorney requested The attorney for the three plaintiffs, Joanne L. Suder, in pleadings to the court, said that disclosure of the identities would cause the women ''further permanent and severe humiliation, embarrassment and emotional suffering both personally and professionally.''

Ms. Suder continued, ''The overwhelming and dire consequences of . . . publicizing the identity of 'Mary Doe' outweighs any interest which the public may have in obtaining access to the identity of the plaintiff.''

For his part, Dr. Solomon charged the claims are ''outrageous.'' He added, ''I have been tried, convicted and hung in the media.''

What about Dr. Solomon's name? Asked about whether an attempt was made to also seal Dr. Solomon's name, Paul Walter, an attorney for Dr. Solomon, said the first woman's suit was filed, her name was sealed and stories appeared in the media before any chance to make such a pleading. Asked if he would have requested Dr. Solomon's name be sealed, he declined to comment.

I also have a fairness question: Why does the Maryland court system allow a plaintiff's name in a civil suit be sealed without allowing the defendant's lawyers a chance if they want to request their client's name also be sealed before any publicity results?

The Solomon case is unusual because the plaintiffs' names are sealed, but as Mr. Schenning says, it's a growing trend in sensitive sex cases, though still rare. A Sun reporter's informal computer check of about 170,000 civil suits filed in Baltimore Circuit Court in the past 10 years showed that only 23 were filed by plaintiffs identified as John or Jane Doe. There are also some other pseudonyms.

The Sun has to cover the Solomon case; that's its job. The claims against Dr. Solomon are serious. He has been admittedly ''a high profile figure'' for years, a one-time state health secretary who announced this summer he was studying a run for governor and who headed three state health boards, activities now halted. A practicing private physician, he wrote a nationally syndicated medical column appearing in The Evening Sun. The syndicate dropped it when he tried to give up his medical license. The medical board is now probing him.

Although most suits don't make the papers, Dr. Solomon was news by any news definition. When legal claims are serious and persons in a suit are prominent, that's news. Professional people with public careers are especially aware of the risks of civil suits in this litigious society.

The Sun, however, must be fair. Defendants are innocent unless proved guilty. The Sun for years has avoided using alleged sex-abuse victims' names; it probably would not publish the names even if not sealed. The paper has correctly chosen not to publish many specifics in the Solomon suits, details that were not sealed. The Sun should continue to report the defendants' statements with the same prominence as the claims and follow the case to the end.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Baltimore Sun's reader representative.

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