Brooks v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.

Citation932 F.2d 495
Decision Date03 May 1991
Docket NumberNo. 90-3369,90-3369
Parties18 Media L. Rep. 2121 William G. BROOKS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANIES, INC.; Geraldo Rivera; Charles C. Thompson; and Maravilla Productions Company, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)

David L. Jamison, John L. Wolfe (argued), Akron, Ohio, for plaintiff-appellant.

Carolyn K. Seymour, Terence J. Clark (argued), Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, Cleveland, Ohio, for defendants-appellees.

Before RYAN and NORRIS, Circuit Judges, and PECK, Senior Circuit Judge.

RYAN, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff William G. Brooks appeals from the district court's denial of his motion to amend his complaint to include allegations that 1) American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC) and other defendants violated 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2511, which prohibits electronic interception of certain conversations, and 2) ABC and other defendants violated 42 U.S.C. Secs. 1981, 1985, which prohibit certain forms of racial discrimination. The district court denied the motion to amend on the grounds that the new allegations could not survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Brooks also appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment for ABC and other defendants with respect to his state-law action for libel.

We are presented with two issues. The first is whether taking as true the well-pleaded allegations of his motion to amend, Brooks states a cause of action for violation of his rights under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2511 or 42 U.S.C. Secs. 1981, 1985. The second is whether genuine issues of material fact remain concerning ABC's and the other defendants' alleged libeling of Brooks.

We conclude that Brooks fails to state a cause of action for violation of the federal statutes. We also conclude that under the analysis the district court employed in entering summary judgment, genuine issues of material fact remain with respect to defendants' alleged libel.

I. Background

ABC television personality Geraldo Rivera traveled to Akron, Ohio, to investigate rumors that a local judge persuaded women to have sex with him by offering the women favorable rulings in certain cases. Rivera suspected that Brooks, an Akron resident with a substantial and slightly publicized criminal background, was assisting the judge by attempting to frighten the women out of testifying against him. Rivera persuaded Brooks to meet Rivera at a hotel. As soon as Brooks got out of his taxi, Rivera emerged from the hotel and rapidly asked Brooks a series of questions concerning Brooks's suspected role as "hitman" for the judge.

After this questioning, during which Brooks may not have known that ABC was recording his answers, Rivera summoned a camera crew from a nearby van. Muttering some obscenities, Brooks fled, with Rivera and camera crew in close pursuit. On a 1980 episode of ABC's television program "20/20," the network broadcast Rivera's and other persons' negative comments concerning Brooks and his alleged involvement with the judge. The remarks were to the effect that the judge employed Brooks as a "hitman," that five witnesses attested to his role, and that Brooks was a "pimp," "betrayed" by the judge, a "muscleman," and a "street knowledgeable jive turkey." Before the broadcast of the "20/20" segment, a grand jury indicted Brooks on charges related to obstruction of justice.

Over the years, police had taken Brooks into custody 20 times on suspicion of various misdeeds. Brooks's criminal history included convictions for 1) breaking and entering, 2) grand larceny, 3) first-degree manslaughter, and 4) carrying a concealed weapon under disability. Adverse publicity had compromised Brooks's reputation severely prior to the "20/20" broadcast. The Akron Beacon Journal publicized Brooks's convictions in four articles. In addition to reporting the convictions, the Beacon Journal also had noted Brooks's "involvement" in a 1979 Akron slaying. Ten days before the "20/20" broadcast, the newspaper reported Brooks's indictment for intimidation of witnesses and obstruction of justice in relation to the judge, and referred to Brooks as "the man police suspect of being the so-called 'hit-man' in the sex case involving [the judge]...." According to Brooks, potential employers had become wary of hiring him as a result of his prior convictions.

In 1981, Brooks filed a complaint in the United States District Court invoking diversity jurisdiction and alleging that ABC and others libeled him by broadcasting Rivera's derogatory and allegedly false remarks. Brooks sought $20 million in compensatory and $20 million in punitive damages. Brooks next filed a motion to amend his complaint and alleged that ABC and others violated 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2511 by using electronic, mechanical, or similar devices to unlawfully intercept his statements to Rivera and by broadcasting the statements at a later date. Brooks also alleged that defendants violated 42 U.S.C. Secs. 1981, 1985 by conspiring to deprive him of his constitutional right to privacy inasmuch as he and the women with whom the judge allegedly had sex were black and the judge was white. Brooks continued to seek $40 million in damages, as well as attorneys' fees.

Defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment. The district court denied Brooks's motion to amend and also granted summary judgment for ABC and the defendants with respect to the claims in the original complaint, 737 F.Supp. 431. Brooks appeals from the summary judgment and from the denial of his motion to amend.

II. Federal Claims
A. Standard of Review

We have previously set forth the standards governing dismissal of a civil rights action under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim:

Dismissals of complaints under the civil rights statutes are scrutinized with special care. A complaint need not set down in detail all the particularities of a plaintiff's claim against a defendant. Rule 8(a)(2) simply requires 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief....' Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(1)(2). All a complaint need do is afford the defendant 'fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.' [citation omitted]. A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) should not be granted 'unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.'

Jones v. Duncan, 840 F.2d 359, 361 (6th Cir.1988) (citations omitted) (emphasis in original).

B. Section 1981 and Section 1985 Claims

In his complaint, Brooks alleges that the defendants conspired to violate sections 1981 and 1985 by using photographs of Brooks and tape recordings of his voice "only for the reason that [Brooks] was a black male alleged to be the friend and associate of a white male judge, who had had sexual relations with black women." Brooks alleges that these actions violated his "constitutional right of privacy." Beyond these broad statements, Brooks's pleadings did not clarify his legal basis for proceeding. While Brooks's motion to amend alleged that ABC acted under color of state law, Brooks has since retreated from that position.

1. Section 1981

Section 1981 provides:

All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.

42 U.S.C. Sec. 1981.

Brooks argues that the broadcast violated section 1981 because the adverse publicity interfered with his right to a fair trial and because the broadcast labeled Brooks with a "badge of infamy." According to his brief, however, Brooks never stood trial but instead pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice "in exchange for a plea bargain that he would receive probation."

The district court denied Brooks's section 1981 claim on the grounds that 1) Brooks failed to allege state action, and 2) his allegations were fatally vague and conclusory in omitting any mention of the laws of which he allegedly was denied the full and equal benefit. While there exists some federal appellate authority for the proposition that clauses two and three of section 1981 contemplate state action, e.g., Mahone v. Waddle, 564 F.2d 1018, 1029-30 (3d Cir.1977), we need not resolve that issue today. Especially in view of the fact that he never stood trial, Brooks's vague and conclusory allegations cannot survive a motion to dismiss, and the district court correctly denied the motion to amend.

2. Section 1985

Section 1985 provides:

Obstructing justice; intimidating party, witness, or juror


(2) If two or more persons in any State or Territory conspire to deter, by force, intimidation, or threat, any party or witness in any court of the United States from attending such court, or from testifying to any matter pending therein, freely, fully, and truthfully, or to injure such party or witness in his person or property on account of his having so attended or testified, or to influence the verdict, presentment, or indictment of any grand or petit juror in any such court, or to injure such juror in his person or property on account of any verdict, presentment, or indictment lawfully assented to by him, or of his being or having been such juror; or if two or more persons conspire for the purpose of impeding, hindering, obstructing, or defeating, in any manner, the due course of justice in any State or Territory, with intent to deny to any citizen the equal protection of the laws, or to injure him or his property for lawfully enforcing, or attempting to enforce, the right of any person, or class of persons, to the equal protection of the laws;


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