LOS ANGELES — A civil lawsuit against Sharon Stone that had been conducted in secret turned out to be a routine dispute over legal fees that both sides wanted kept from public view, though the judge says they were sealed in error.
Court officials released the records Friday after days of inquiry by several media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press. Filed in November by an attorney seeking more than $107,000 in legal fees, the lawsuit was never entered into public records after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis said she "inadvertently" sealed the entire court file.
The case was discovered by a City News Service reporter, who heard of it while covering an unrelated hearing but could not find related documents. Court spokesman Allan Parachini said it was "impossible" to determine whether any other cases involving celebrities or other litigants may remain outside public records in Los Angeles' Superior Court system.
The case was not unlike many contract disputes that are filed against celebrities in Los Angeles. William Jacobson sued the "Basic Instinct" actress and two film companies, Libertine Films, Inc. and Chaos Productions, Inc., for $107,000 in legal fees he claimed were unpaid, plus interest.
The matter was settled earlier this year for undisclosed terms. Stone publicist Paul Bloch said the actress had no comment Friday.
Records released Friday show that attorneys for both Stone and Jacobson intended to have the case kept from public scrutiny.
"The matters of this litigation are private in nature between parties and do not require public disclosure and would serve no useful purpose in being disclosed," Jacobson's attorney, David E. Bower, wrote in a November filing in support of sealing the case.
The filing noted that Stone's side refused to have a private court resolve the dispute. It was a point Duffy-Lewis raised to attorneys for Stone and Jacobson at a later court hearing.
"No court has the jurisdiction to summarily decide that they will seal records because it's painful or because it's embarrassing or because they just deem it to be private for the parties," Duffy-Lewis told Bower during a February hearing.
She said at one point it would be "more reasonable" to seal certain cases so that details don't appear in stories by the Los Angeles Times, People magazine, and celebrity gossip site TMZ. But Duffy-Lewis noted she didn't have that authority.
Yet a month later, she ended a hearing called to resolve the issue of whether the case could remain sealed before making a decision. It wasn't until this week _ after numerous inquiries from reporters and a meeting Friday that involved the court system's presiding judge _ that the records were finally opened.
Open records advocates say the use of secret court dockets is a growing problem.
"No. 1 _ the use of this is increasing," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va., that is funded through donations and sales of its reports. "No. 2 _ It is illegal."
She said secret cases are becoming common in the federal justice system, but often involves criminal matters.
"What on Earth could possibly be the justification for sealing a run-of-the-mill civil lawsuit?" Dalglish said. "The folks who are rich and powerful don't want to abide by the same rules the rest of us do."