A judge Wednesday dealt a setback to a woman retained as a journalist by an anti-abortion group that claims the First Amendment shields it and her from allegations they illegally videotaped principals of a medical research company that used fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rafael A. Ongkeko ruled that Sandra Merritt, described as an investigative reporter by lawyers for the Center for Medical Progress, will remain a defendant in a lawsuit.
The suit alleges StemExpress’s privacy was invaded when the defendants secretly recording a meeting at a Northern California restaurant in May 2015 with StemExpress founder Catherine Dyer and others.
StemExpress bills itself as a “small life sciences company committed to accelerating research, advancing medicine and saving lives.”
The video depicts Dyer saying that StemExpress receives intact fetuses from clinics, according to the CMP.
The judge said he saw no reason to remove Merritt as a defendant.
“I think they’re in this together,” Ongkeko said. “Given the current facts, Ms. Merritt cannot carve herself out of this case.”
StemExpress LLC filed its suit last July 27, two weeks after the Center for Medical Progress released undercover footage of its founder, David Daleiden, posing as a representative for a fake biomedical company and questioning a Planned Parenthood doctor about the sale of fetal tissue. Merritt accompanied Daleiden to the dinner, the suit states.
Defense attorney Charles LiMandri maintains that the dinner conversation was not confidential because it took place in an environment where those present knew their conversation could be overheard. But in January, Ongkeko also rejected First Amendment arguments and denied LiMandri’s motion to dismiss all claims against the Center for Medical Progress.
LiMandri has appealed the first ruling and said after Wednesday’s hearing that he will also do the same with the decision regarding Merritt, a move which could put the entire lawsuit on hold pending the outcome of the appeals.
“By filing this action, plaintiffs … seek to punish defendant Merritt for her participation as a journalist in an investigative project, and to chill her from exercising her First Amendment rights to engage in effective investigative journalism,” LiMandri wrote in his court papers.
LiMandri said that since 2013, Merritt has assisted CMP in an investigative journalism project called “Human Capital.” As a result of the project, congressional committees and more than a dozen states have begun investigations into the illegal harvesting of fetal tissue, fetal body parts and whole fetal body parts, all for profit, according to LiMandri.
His court papers also state that CMP at times has asked Merritt to pose as “Susan Tannenbaum” in interactions with people in the fetal tissue procurement industry.
Plaintiff’s attorney Charles Weir argued there was “clear evidence of a conspiracy” between Merritt and the others.
Weir stated in his court papers that the dinner meeting took place in a remote area of the restaurant where no one else was dining for most of the time the parties were together.
Attorneys for StemExpress maintained Merritt’s alleged role in the secret recording made her a co-conspirator.
StemExpress announced last August that it would no longer receive fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood.
—City News Service