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story.lead_photo.caption Former Superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools Matthew Wendt is shown in this 2017 file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will be allowed to intervene in the case of a woman who sued the Fayetteville School District to prevent the release of records related to the firing of former Superintendent Matthew Wendt.

Circuit Judge Tom Cooper of Ashdown, who was assigned to hear the case after local judges recused, granted the newspaper's motion to intervene Thursday.

Legal lingo

Intervene

A civil law procedure where someone who is not part of a case can join the case to make sure his interests get fairly represented. When an outside party seeks to join a case via “intervention of right,” that person or party will have filed a motion with the court presenting sufficient evidence they have an interest in the issues involved, they risk some form of injustice if not joined to the case and that no one else already on the case can sufficiently represent their interests. When an outside party tries to join a case using the “permissive intervention” route, he may not have a direct interest in the case, but, he will be able to prove there is a particular question of law or statute that needs clarification or interpretation by the judge.

Source: Staff report

The woman, who said she was the target of sexual harassment by Wendt, sued in July to block the release of documents requested under the state's Freedom of Information Act, saying her personal privacy should outweigh the public's right to know.

The suit was filed on behalf of "Jane Doe" in Washington County Circuit Court. "Jane Doe" has since been identified as Shae Lynn Newman in a separate lawsuit filed against her by Wendt.

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette requested personnel records related to Wendt's termination. Specifically, the newspaper asked for material that formed the basis of the School Board's decision to suspend and fire Wendt.

The newspaper filed a motion to intervene in late July, seeking release of the documents. The School District isn't opposed to the newspaper intervening in the lawsuit. The newspaper's motion argued it has a right to the documents and parties to the lawsuit don't adequately represent the paper's interests.

"The Democrat-Gazette has a recognized interest in this litigation as it seeks public disclosure pursuant to the FOIA of the exact public records that plaintiff is asking this court to conceal," according to the motion, filed by attorney Alec Gaines. "The Democrat-Gazette's interest in disclosure and rights pursuant to the FOIA, as a practical matter, will be impaired by the disposition of this lawsuit, particularly if plaintiff prevails, the parties decide to settle the case, or if the court determines that information must be withheld pursuant to FOIA."

The School District said in a filing it believes most of the documents should be made public. The district said recent attorney general opinions back its position.

Newman's attorney, Suzanne Clark, opposed the newspaper's motion to intervene.

"There is literally no way to present evidence and make argument to the court in a public hearing about the facts at issue, without disclosing the records and their contents -- defeating the entire purpose of the case," according to a response.

"Plaintiff respectfully renews her motion to seal the records, including closing the court's hearing of the matter to the public. Should the court ultimately rule against the plaintiff, the transcript of any such hearing could be made available to the public. However, the plaintiff should not be in the position of making her case by either disclosing information she seeks to protect or being hamstrung by the inability to discuss the records freely with the court."

Clark has requested closed hearings and a gag order for all parties. Cooper has not ruled on that request. The judge also is hearing a separate lawsuit, filed by Little Rock blogger Russell Racop, seeking the same material.

Wendt filed his lawsuit Tuesday against Newman in Washington County Circuit Court. The lawsuit seeks not less than $850,000 in damages from Newman, claiming she intentionally and improperly interfered with the business expectancy between Wendt and his employer and her actions led to his termination.

Clark, filed a sexual harassment claim with the School District on March 14. She presented Chris Lawson, district general counsel, with voice recordings of Wendt and copies of text messages between Newman and Wendt supporting her client's complaint, Clark said in a news release.

Clark filed a complaint May 25 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the School District and School Board. The complaint to the commission details Wendt's conduct after Newman refused to continue to have sex with him, according to a news release by Clark.

Newman complained Wendt stalked her, sent her numerous text messages while she was at home and at work and told her she could be fired for her actions, according to the news release.

The School Board unanimously voted to terminate Wendt's contract June 18.

The board cited a breach of contract by violating district policy. Wendt violated the policy through his derogatory and offensive conduct and communication with a female subordinate employee, according to Susan Kendall, a lawyer with the Kendall Law Firm in Rogers and the School Board's legal counsel.

NW News on 08/10/2018

Print Headline: Newspaper granted intervention in Wendt FOIA lawsuit

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