Judith Barrigas had a question about her taxes, so she called the IRS.
The agency’s switchboard connected her with Agent Jimmy Forsyth. They spoke for almost 45 minutes on May 19, 2015, about a potential misapplication of her tax refund in 2014. It appeared the agency had applied her refund to outstanding liabilities from 2011 and 2012, even though she already had a repayment agreement in place.
Not exactly the stuff of thrilling radio.
At some point during that call, though, Barrigas’s phone began lighting up like a Skrillex concert. Phone calls and text messages began pouring in. Strangely, Barrigas didn’t recognize the numbers. It wasn’t until later that she solved the mystery.
Now, she’s suing the United States of America, shock-jock Howard Stern and the Howard Stern Production Company on grounds of unlawful invasion of privacy and negligence, among other things.
Before taking Barrigas’s call, Agent Forsyth had called into the “The Howard Stern Show,” a long-running talk show airing on Sirius XM satellite radio. The show often attempts to mine anything off-kilter (some, perhaps many, would say in poor taste) for laughs, from men faking orgasms with attractive women to having famous sportscasters prank call small market sports shows.
It’s unclear why, exactly, Forsyth had called into the show. He was placed on hold by a producer and remained in that limbo when he took Barrigas’s call on a different line.
Only, something happened. Perhaps the lines got crossed, or perhaps he used two different phones and the first picked up audio from the second. Either way, the producers at “The Howard Stern Show” found themselves listening to the private call between Forsyth and Barrigas.
Then, according to the complaint filed on Monday in Massachusetts District Court in Boston, they aired it.
Among the personal information that was allegedly broadcast to some of Siruis XM’s 30 million subscribers was Barrigas’s phone number. The show’s fans, either acting as a band of merry pranksters or attempting to save the woman further embarrassment, began calling and texting in droves to inform Barrigas of what was happening.
“As soon as I heard of this information I just started to quiver, and had what I would call an out-of-body experience,” she told WBZ at the time. “I couldn’t believe it. At first I thought it was a joke.”
She said the IRS informed her this indeed happened, but not until it was reported by local media, despite her many calls to the agency.
“Only upon notice from WCVB did the IRS begin an investigation into the matter and place Agent Forsythe on administrative leave,” the complaint stated.
“My phone number is out there, my personal conversation, and I just feel terribly violated, and I feel like I’m in jeopardy that my credit information might be out there and I’m just totally devastated,” she told the station.
In a statement to WBZ, the IRS stated, “We are aware of this troubling situation, and we are currently reviewing the matter. The IRS takes the confidentiality of taxpayer information very seriously, and we have high standards that we expect and require employees to follow.”
The clip seems to have been removed from both YouTube and Stern’s website, but a news report including a portion of the show is still online. In it, Stern can be heard yelling “Jimmy!” seemingly in an attempt to get the IRS agent’s attention, while co-host Robin Quivers says, “If he’s working we can’t interrupt him.”
According to the suit, as a result of the call being aired, Barrigas “has had difficulty sleeping and eating … and has sought treatment as a result.” She also allegedly has “had difficulty finding employment in her field, as the wide airing and publication of her private tax matter has affected her employment search negatively.”
Barrigas seeks both compensatory and punitive damages along with “reasonable attorneys’ fees, statutory interest, and the costs of this action.”
As of early Wednesday, neither the Howard Stern Production Company nor the IRS has released a statement or responded to media requests regarding the lawsuit.
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