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A Breach of Faith?

Jewish Family Service sues Pacific Bell over a listing blunder

by Michael Aushenker

May 4, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Jewish Family Service (JFS), a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, announced earlier this week that it will sue Pacific Bell and Pacific Bell Directory on several counts, including gross negligence, invasion of privacy, and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The lawsuit stems from fallout over the phone company's failure to act responsibly after Pacific Bell Directory had included the address of a San Fernando Valley JFS shelter in white pages and 411 listings. JFS had requested that the address of its shelters remain anonymous, since they act as safe havens for battered women and children seeking immunity from domestic violence situations.

According to the plaintiff's complaint, by publishing the JFS shelter's address in its July 1999-2000 Valley white pages directory, the agency claims that Pac Bell "endangered the lives and safety of the Shelter's clients and staff by disclosing the Shelter's highly confidential address to the public."

At a press conference, JFS and their legal representation -- Loeb & Loeb LLP, and The California Women's Law Center -- spoke at length as to what motivated the lawsuit: primarily the damages incurred by JFS, and the phone company's indifference toward the situation, even after admitting to its error.

Lisa Brooks, JFS director of development marketing, explained that JFS first learned about the mishap in January -- five months after the directory's publication -- when the mother-in-law of a domestic violence victim showed up at the Valley clinic's doorstep. Upon further investigation, JSF learned of the other listings Pacific Bell had passed the address along to, which include the Donnelley Directory (not named in the lawsuit).

"We were appalled, and our immediate directive was to evacuate the shelter," said Brooks.

Because of the error, JFS had to immediately abandon the shelter and relocate six women and 11 children staying at the facility.

Brooks emphasized how life-jeopardizing the publication of the address was to the clients. Marci Fukuroda of California Women's Law Center added, "We know that the initial period of separation after fleeing a batterer is the most dangerous time for a woman and her children. In fact, 65 percent of women who were murdered by their partners had taken steps to physically separate themselves" from the abuser. JFS stated that to their knowledge the unauthorized listing had not attracted any abusers to the site.

JFS expects Pacific Bell to pay for all of the financial burden since losing the housing facility. The error has already cost $960,000 and the agency is now forced to look for a new grant to subsidize the facility and for a new building to occupy in a marketplace that is substantially higher than when they leased the old location. Because of these undetermined costs, the agency has yet to put a number on how much in total it will sue the California-based phone company for.

"Damages are only part of the problem," said Brooks. "We believe that this is not the first time that Pacific Bell has done this," she continued, citing similar incidents involving two Bay Area shelters and another in the LA area. "Pacific Bell, it appears, has been doing this over and over and over again. The time has come for Pacific Bell to be accountable."

Said attorney Diane B. Paul of Loeb & Loeb, "Pacific Bell admitted that they know about it. They know what they did is wrong. We're shocked that they've been so unresponsive. We heard absolutely nothing from them. That's why the filing of the lawsuit."

When reached by phone, Pac Bell spokesman Steve Getzug told The Journal, "It was very unfortunate. We accurately publish millions of listings every year and we would never intentionally publish customer information that we were asked to withhold."

Getzug added that until Pacific Bell reviews the complaint, it is not at liberty to comment on the case.

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