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June 30, 2002
How Private Is your Life
"Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent."

-- Marilyn vos Savant

Continued from Front Page:
How Private Is Your Life

Divorce files in New York State are private, so unless you or your ex-spouse has reason to review the file, you would anticipate that the files remained in a dusty old section of a building locked securely away. In 1995, I accompanied my fiancée to the records room of Erie County Hall, in Buffalo, NY. According to the law, we each had to show proof that we were legally divorced from our ex-spouse. While I had copies of my divorce papers, my fiancée did not. We looked through the ledgers to locate his name, the date and the docket number to request the information.

The man at the desk asked for photo identification and went to retrieve the file. He returned with an empty file folder. That was the first experience I had ever had with divorce files. After researching the ledgers, and some key questions from the man in charge, we would learn that my fiancée’s ex-wife had stopped her original divorce proceedings and therefore the actual file and docket number had been changed. With the new information in hand, the man retrieved the files. He returned with a file folder, inside was a sealed envelope; the man rechecked my fiancée’s identification, he requested my fiancée to sign the envelope before allowing him to unseal it. After finding the necessary documentation, my fiancée had photocopies made, returned the documents to the man at the desk who resealed the envelope, returned it to the folder and to its hiding place. All nice and secure, private, away from the eyes of anyone without my fiancée or his ex-wife’s express permission to access the file. That is the way the law says divorce files and their access must be handled.

In August of 2001 due to a legal matter that was remanded to family court, the Judge requested I bring a copy of my entire divorce file. I went to the records room of county hall, and requested my file. I showed my identification, signed a request form, signed the envelope, opened the envelope, which was not sealed and had copies made of every document within the file. I returned the file to the desk, one week later, I would return to the records room in search of two missing paper, one which would confirm to the judge that my divorce was finalized. I went through the process again; again, my file arrived unsealed; the paper was not in my file. (Don’t fret; seven days later I received a copy of one missing paper from Albany, I was legally divorced.) However, a paper pertinent to a case I am presently fighting is still unaccounted for.

Despite the two missing papers, I thought no more about my file until one of the lawyers who is working on a case for me, requested I some in and sign a permission affidavit that would allow him access to my file, rather than continuously taking paperwork back and forth. (It appears that some of the paperwork did not photocopy well.) I signed the affidavit and heard no more until a meeting with two of the three lawyers working on my case. (Yes, loyal readers, I have my own Dream Team.)

At the meeting, the lawyer who had requested my signature on the affidavit to access my divorce file made a startling disclosure, another law firm had accessed my file, the woman I am presently fighting in court signed the affidavit of permission.

Now, recall the reasons that would allow access. She was not the plaintiff or the defendant in the trial, one hundred years had definitely not passed, the attorney who had accessed the file was not the attorney for either the plaintiff or defendant, there was no court order to release the records; the only item left; executor of the estate was used as what appeared to be a legitimate reason to access the file.

This woman is the present wife of my late ex-husband. Our first names are the same and I did maintain my last married name as part of my surname. There were just a few minor technicalities that qualified this access as fraudulent:

  1. The attorney that accessed the file was not acting on behalf of the estate.
  2. The estate had an attorney on record with the court.
  3. As of the date of the file access, she had yet to be named executor by the court.
  4. With our names being so similar, no one asked questions.
  5. The lawyer who accessed the file, as of yesterday, was named as her attorney in the present lawsuit.
  6. The lawsuit that I presently have is not technically against her it merely affects her.
  7. The lawsuit has absolutely nothing to do with the estate.

Against the advice of my attorney, I decided to pursue this issue on my own, after all; it is extremely personal. I made several telephone calls, to several agencies across New York State to assure myself I had all of the facts straight and to assure myself that I was indeed involved in a fraudulent invasion of privacy. I gathered all of my paperwork, papers indicating who the attorney for the estate was, papers indicating when this woman was appointed executor of the estate, papers indicating that this present legal matter had nothing to do with the estate, nor was it an action against this woman, a copy of the affidavit signed by the other woman allowing access to my personal file, a copy of the information provided about the lawyer who accessed my file, and finally the amended hearing papers indicating that as of June 24, the attorney who accessed my file was now the lawyer on record, representing her interest in my legal pursuit. I wrote a brief explanation indicating what had occurred and how I had learned of the breach of privacy, attached copies of all of the supporting documents and began descending upon county hall.

Copies went to the Erie County District attorney, Erie County Clerk, local news stations, the local newspaper and the attorney grievance committee. The request I have made is simple; this is a criminal offense, treat it like one, go through each and every divorce file in Erie County Hall to see how many other records have been illegally accessed by deceptive lawyers and clients. It was quite a fluke that I learned of the breach of privacy, under normal circumstances, I do not believe I would have ever learned of that breach; but I highly doubt that mine is the only case.

I had all of necessary documentation at my home. Thankfully, I did not have to travel to Erie County Hall to retrieve copies of the records. I did however, have a great deal of copying to complete. I had already been in a great deal of pain because I felt I would be capable of driving myself to my lawyer's office on Wednesday, that had been a mistake. I was on my feet a bit more than usual, and I pushed myself to sit in front of the computer for probably 20 - 25 minutes every hour. My pain was far greater than what I have been suffering more recently; on a scale of 1 to 10 I was definitely at 150. Neither pain medication, nor pain relief exercises helped. I spent an extensive amount of time with my physical therapist today trying to get back in shape. It is amazing how much this little breach of privacy has cost me; in time, in pain, in loss of sleep, in anger, in depression. I know many of you are wondering what this legal issue is; whenever it comes to an end, I promise to report it, because I am learning that many women have faced this same problem, and I am researching possible solutions to this problem. I do not believe anyone should have to go through what I am going through, especially when this matter was handled via legal documents and legal contracts that had been drafted, signed, notarized and filed nearly ten years ago. (I apologize, but I really cannot go any further into details at this moment in time.)

In the meantime, while we all await the verdict in my legal concern and while we all await the system to right the wrong with the breach of privacy topic, may I suggest to anyone who may have been divorced in Erie County, New York to make a quick trip to Erie County Hall and request your records; you may have a bit of a surprise awaiting you.


issuesny@hotmail.com

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Page Last Updated: 6/30/2002
C 2002 L Munro