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New York trial court quashes subpoena against Wall Street Journal for reporter's notes, phone records

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
A New York trial court ruled that The Wall Street Journal does not have to turn over years' worth of…

A New York trial court ruled that The Wall Street Journal does not have to turn over years' worth of e-mail messages and reporter notes to business mogul Sheldon Adelson because those documents are protected by the state's shield law.

Judge Donna M. Mills ruled in a four-page opinion last week that Adelson “failed to overcome the qualified privilege for non-confidential news gathering material” provided by the state shield law. Adelson claimed that the records could shed light on his defamation suit against a former employee who accused him of condoning prostitution. Wall Street Journal reporter Kate O’Keefe wrote about the prostitution accusation against Adelson in an article.

To overcome the qualified reporter's privilege in New York, litigants must show that the material they are seeking is highly relevant, critical to their claim and not obtainable through another reasonable method. According to the opinion, Adelson "has not shown why he is entitled to the material sought."

Laura Handman, who represented the newspaper in its efforts to have Adelson’s subpoena quashed, said that a decision to force the disclosure Adelson requested “would have raised a number of disturbing questions” for journalists.

“Courts, happily, are so far unwilling to allow rummaging through newsgathering material for cases that are of questionable merit,” she said.

The dispute arose out of a lawsuit in Florida, where Adelson is suing Steven Jacobs for defamation. In a separate lawsuit, Jacobs, a former employee of Adelson's Las Vegas Sands Corporation, is suing the company in an employment case in Nevada.

Adelson's lawyers subpoenaed The Wall Street Journal’s parent company demanding all communications and documents exchanged between Jacobs and the newspaper, plus phone records showing any evidence of the newspaper's staff talking with Jacobs, since Jan. 1, 2010.

In a brief urging the New York court to quash the subpoena, the newspaper's lawyers called the subpoena “a classic ‘fishing expedition’” and accused Adelson of using it as a thinly veiled excuse to seek information that he could use in the Nevada trial.

The matter could still be appealed to a higher New York state court.