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Undercover television reporter may be liable for trespass

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Privacy   ·   July 8, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   FLORIDA   ·   Privacy   ·   July 8, 2005

Undercover television reporter may be liable for trespass

  • A reporter who went undercover to expose mismanagement of a magazine sales company could be liable for trespassing, but not for wiretapping and fraud, a federal district court judge ruled last week.

July 8, 2005  ·   The television news magazine “Inside Edition” will go to trial on trespass charges but cannot be held liable for wiretapping and fraud charges brought by a door-to-door magazine company that was the subject of an undercover investigation, a federal judge in Miami ruled last week.

In moving the trespass claim forward, U.S. District Judge James Cohn relied in part on the 1999 Food Lion v. Capital Cities/ABC ruling in which the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) ruled that when reporters go undercover to obtain consent to enter otherwise private and inaccessible property, they may be liable for trespassing

The Florida claims arose after “Inside Edition” reporter Matthew Yule misrepresented his qualifications to gain employment as a sales agent with Pitts Sales, Inc., a door-to-door magazine sales company based in Coral Springs, Fla. During his brief employment with Pitts in 2003, Yule used a hidden camera and microphone to record the inner activities of the company, which included cruel and abusive treatment of sales agents, deceptive sales practices and deficient employee supervision. The magazine company sued King World Productions Inc., which produces Inside Edition, for illegal wiretapping, fraud and trespass after the investigative expose aired.

Cohn dismissed the wiretap claims because he concluded that Yule was a “party” in all of the recorded communications, exempting him from liability under federal wiretapping law.

The judge also dismissed the fraud claim after determining that Yule’s misrepresentations during the hiring process were not the actual cause of Pitts Sales’ financial losses, which included administrative and training costs. Looking to the Food Lion case, the judge concluded that the magazine company did not have a reasonable assumption that Yule would remain employed there for any length of time because Florida is an at-will employment state where employment can be terminated at any time by either party, like North Carolina where Food Lion is headquartered.

Cohn also cited Food Lion in determining that the trespass claim should proceed to trial. Because Yule’s misrepresentations led to his accessing numerous nonpublic locations either rented or owned by Pitts Sales, the judge held that a trial would be necessary to determine if he was liable for trespassing.

“We have maintained throughout the litigation that Inside Edition’s newsgathering activities were proper and had not violated any wiretap laws or engaged in fraud,” Inside Edition spokesman Jim Kelly said in a statement. “King World is very pleased that Judge Cohn . . . has largely granted our motion for summary judgment in the case.”

Kelly said that Pitts Sales is requesting only nominal damages in the trespass lawsuit.

(Pitts Sales, Inc., v. King World Productions, Inc., Media Counsel: Michael Sullivan, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, Washington, D.C.)AG

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