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Former congressman can bring claims against reporters

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  1. Libel and Privacy
NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MARYLAND   ·   Privacy   ·   Oct. 6, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   MARYLAND   ·   Privacy   ·   Oct. 6, 2005

Former congressman can bring claims against reporters

  • An intermediate appellate court accepted a former congressman’s version of events in a dispute with reporters, reinstating trespass and invasion of privacy claims against them.

Oct. 6, 2005  ·   A former congressman can bring charges of trespass and invasion of privacy against two Baltimore Sun reporters, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled Sept. 29, overturning a lower court’s decision to throw out the claims.

The appellate court found enough factual disputes in the case that it should go to trial. The Sun had attempted to show that former Congressman Parren Mitchell had not provided enough evidence to prove his claims.

The appellate court found, “if a fact-finder credited Congressman Mitchell’s testimony, the reporters’ intent to intrude upon Congressman Mitchell’s solitude and private affairs could be implied through their refusal to leave and through their continued questioning,” wrote Judge James A. Kenney III for the unanimous five-judge panel.

Two conflicting stories lie at the heart of this case. On May 29, 2002, the reporters, Walter Roche Jr. and Ivan Penn, visited Mitchell at the Keswick Multi-Care Center as part of an investigation into his financial difficulties. The reporters say that they entered the room and identified themselves as reporters, and that Mitchell was receptive to their questions and nobody asked them to leave. Mitchell’s nurse supported their story in her affidavit.

Mitchell, however, swore in a deposition that the reporters entered his room unannounced, never identified themselves, looked through files he had in his room, and refused to leave despite repeated requests. He sued in June 2002, alleging trespass, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A trial court dismissed the case in March 2004.

With such wildly diverging stories, the appellate court found, “the inconsistencies in the Congressman’s version of events can certainly be raised during cross-examination and argued as reasons to disbelieve his testimony, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to him, there is a dispute of material fact regarding whether one of the reporters looking through his files or papers, thereby exceeding the scope of the Congressman’s consent, if any, to their presence,” Kenney wrote.

The appellate court, taking Mitchell’s account as true, determined, “it would not have been customary for Roche and Penn to enter Congressman Mitchell’s private nursing room, unannounced and uninvited,” Kenney wrote.

In addition, the court found that Mitchell’s “answering of the reporters’ questions could not be ‘reasonably understood by [the reporters] to be intended as consent’ to their presence or the interview,” Kenney wrote.

Therefore, the court found the Mitchell had presented sufficient evidence, albeit all in his own testimony, that the reporters trespassed into his room and invaded his privacy. However, the court did throw out the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim because the reporters’ questioning, even if uninvited, did not exceed “all possible bounds of decency.”

(Mitchell v. Baltimore Sun Company; Media counsel: Jay Ward Brown, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Washington, D.C.)CM

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