Two ‘secret children’ of ex-Indy fertility doctor sue Netflix for revealing identities

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Two Marion County women who discovered they were among the nearly 100 “secret children” of a former Indiana fertility doctor that inspired the popular Netflix documentary “Our Father” are suing the film’s producers, claiming their identities were revealed without their consent.

Janet Roe and Jane Doe, remaining anonymous in their lawsuits, filed separate complaints on Saturday in the Marion County Superior Court against Netflix Inc., Netflix Worldwide Entertainment LLC and Blumhouse Productions LLC.

The suits allege that the defendants’ documentary identifies both plaintiffs as secret children of Dr. Donald Cline, a former Indianapolis fertility doctor who used his own sperm to impregnate dozens of women through artificial insemination in the 1970s and 1980s at his Indianapolis clinic, without the women’s consent or knowledge.

Blumhouse Productions declined to comment on the allegations. The Indiana Lawyer has reached out to Netflix for comment.

Indianapolis attorneys Robert MacGill and Matthew Ciulla of MacGill PC are representing the unidentified plaintiffs.

MacGill told the Indiana Lawyer that his focus during the proceedings will center on privacy protections afforded under applicable law, including the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent decision in Community Health Network, Inc. v. Heather McKenzie, et al., 20S-CT-648.

The suits allege that Roe and Doe took DNA tests in 2019 through an online service that revealed they each had several biological half-siblings. The women subsequently discovered that they were among Cline’s secret children.

Cline was criminally charged with obstruction of justice and handed a one-year suspended sentence in 2017 after pleading guilty to charges that he lied to investigators when he denied wrongdoing for inseminating the women.

After his expired license was eventually surrendered to the Indiana Medical Licensing Board, the panel voted to bar Cline from ever applying for a license in Indiana again.

In 2019, Indiana lawmakers made fertility fraud a Level 6 felony after finding no law on the books specifically prohibited Cline’s actions. The Legislature also created a civil cause of action for fertility fraud, which enables the plaintiff to be awarded compensatory and punitive damages, or liquidated damages of $10,000.

Neither Roe or Doe knew they were secret children until after the DNA test, their respective complaints allege. The plaintiffs’ identities through the DNA website were “kept secured to a limited number of persons, namely, certain of the biological half siblings, through passwords and other means.”

However, the women claim their names and images were used in the “Our Father” documentary by listing their specific names and photographs without their explicit consent.

The documentary has skyrocketed in popularity as a “Top 10” feature on the Netflix streaming service and has been viewed by millions of people this month upon its release, the complaints allege.

Producers of the film said they contacted many of Cline’s secret children about participating in or submitting photos of themselves for the documentary, including Roe and Doe.

Doe completely declined to participate in the documentary, the complaint states. Roe provided photos of herself as a baby and as an adult to be used in a portion of the documentary, but did not give consent to include her name, she alleges.

Both women claim that they were counting on non-information and anonymity pledges made by the filmmakers to keep their identities hidden unless expressly given permission to use in the documentary.

The complaints allege that producer Michael Petrella told the plaintiffs and other secret children, “I know that some of you were more comfortable than others being involved … . You will not be identified (unless you’ve already given us explicit permission to do so … .”

The defendants also allegedly told the secret children, “The only person who knows [half] siblings’ identities is [Petrella]. [Petrella] made sure of that–even Netflix has no idea about the ones who have chosen to remain anonymous.”

But at the release of “Our Father,” the women say that they learned for the first time their names and images were used in the film despite privacy assurances from filmmakers.

While some of the half-siblings’ names were blurred in the documentary, the two women allege their names were published in their entirety. Advertisements on Twitter and Facebook for the film also included snapshots showing their names and photos, the complaint states.

Both women claim the release of their identities as secret children has caused them “severe harm, including, but not limited to, reputational injury, distress, embarrassment, and emotional trauma.”

The suits allege the defendants committed public disclosure of private facts, deception, intentional infliction of emotional distress, identity deception and theft.

Both women are seeking a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to stop using and remove their names, image and likeness from the documentary and on social media.

They also seek a jury trial and to recover compensatory and punitive damages, as well as up to three time their damages, costs and attorney fees and other expenses associated with the suit.

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2 thoughts on “Two ‘secret children’ of ex-Indy fertility doctor sue Netflix for revealing identities

  1. They were victims of a crime. The media often identifies victims of a crime. Sometimes though, because of the nature of the offense, they won’t identify them. But I think that’s simply a practice adopted out of respect for the victim’s privacy. I don’t think it’s a legal requirement. I kind of doubt there is some sort of right to not be identified. Not that I’m not sympathetic to the people who are identified in this situation.

    On a similar topic, I find it offensive when Hollywood produces movies based on a real event, and then misrepresents what happened, making the very real people involved look bad. In most cases, there is nothing those people can do to recover for their damaged reputations.