Pearson v. Dodd

Citation410 F.2d 701
Decision Date24 February 1969
Docket NumberNo. 21910.,21910.
PartiesDrew PEARSON and Jack Anderson, Appellants, v. Thomas J. DODD, Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)

Mr. John Donovan, Washington, D. C., with whom Mr. Warren Woods and Mrs. Betty Southard Murphy, Washington, D. C., were on the brief, for appellants.

Mr. John F. Sonnett, New York City, with whom Mr. Donald J. Mulvihill, Washington, D. C., was on the brief, for appellee.

Before WRIGHT, TAMM and ROBINSON, Circuit Judges.

Certiorari Denied June 9, 1969. See 89 S.Ct. 2021.

J. SKELLY WRIGHT, Circuit Judge:

This case arises out of the exposure of the alleged misdeeds of Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut by newspaper columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson. The District Court has granted partial summary judgment to Senator Dodd, appellee here, finding liability on a theory of conversion. At the same time, the court denied partial summary judgment on the theory of invasion of privacy. Both branches of the court's judgment are before us on interlocutory appeal.1 We affirm the District Court's denial of summary judgment for invasion of privacy and reverse its grant of summary judgment for conversion.

The undisputed facts in the case were stated by the District Court as follows:

"* * * On several occasions in June and July, 1965, two former employees of the plaintiff, at times with the assistance of two members of the plaintiff\'s staff, entered the plaintiff\'s office without authority and unbeknownst to him, removed numerous documents from his files, made copies of them, replaced the originals, and turned over the copies to the defendant Anderson, who was aware of the manner in which the copies had been obtained. The defendants Pearson and Anderson thereafter published articles containing information gleaned from these documents."2

The District Court ruled that appellants' six newspaper columns concerning appellee, which were attached to appellee's complaint, did not establish liability for the tort of invasion of privacy. That tort, whose historical origin lies in the famous Warren and Brandeis article of 1890,3 is recognized in the District of Columbia.4 It has always been considered a defense to a claim of invasion of privacy by publication, however, that the published matter complained of is of general public interest.5 The columns complained of here gave appellants' version of appellee's relationship with certain lobbyists for foreign interests, and gave an interpretive biographical sketch of appellee's public career. They thus clearly bore on appellee's qualifications as a United States Senator,6 and as such amounted to a paradigm example of published speech not subject to suit for invasion of privacy.

Indeed, appellee has not urged with any vigor on appeal the theory that appellants' publications in themselves tortiously invaded his privacy. Rather he has argued that the District Court misapprehended his privacy claim, which went rather to the manner in which the information in the columns was obtained than to the matter contained in them.

Appellee proceeds under a branch of privacy theory which Dean Prosser has labeled "intrusion,"7 and which has been increasingly recognized by courts8 and commentators9 in recent years. Thus it has been held that unauthorized bugging of a dwelling,10 tapping a telephone,11 snooping through windows,12 and overzealous shadowing13 amount to invasions of privacy, whether or not accompanied by trespasses to property.

Unlike other types of invasion of privacy, intrusion does not involve as one of its essential elements the publication of the information obtained.14 The tort is completed with the obtaining of the information by improperly intrusive means.

"Intrusion" has not been either recognized or rejected as a tort in the District of Columbia. It has been recognized by a number of state courts, most recently by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in Hamberger v. Eastman.15 Hamberger found liable a defendant who eavesdropped upon the marital bedroom of plaintiffs by electronic means, holding that "the invasion of the plaintiffs' solitude or seclusion * * * was a violation of their right of privacy."16

We approve the extension of the tort of invasion of privacy to instances of intrusion, whether by physical trespass or not, into spheres from which an ordinary man in a plaintiff's position could reasonably expect that the particular defendant should be excluded. Just as the Fourth Amendment has expanded to protect citizens from government intrusions where intrusion is not reasonably expected,17 so should tort law protect citizens from other citizens. The protection should not turn exclusively on the question of whether the intrusion involves a technical trespass under the law of property. The common law, like the Fourth Amendment, should "protect people, not places."18

The question then becomes whether appellants Pearson and Anderson improperly intruded into the protected sphere of privacy of appellee Dodd in obtaining the information on which their columns were based. In determining this question, we may assume, without deciding, that appellee's employees and former employees did commit such an improper intrusion when they removed confidential files with the intent to show them to unauthorized outsiders.19

Although appellee's complaint charges that appellants aided and abetted in the removal of the documents, the undisputed facts, narrowed by the District Judge with the concurrence of counsel, established only that appellants received copies of the documents knowing that they had been removed without authorization.20 If we were to hold appellants liable for invasion of privacy on these facts, we would establish the proposition that one who receives information from an intruder, knowing it has been obtained by improper intrusion, is guilty of a tort. In an untried and developing area of tort law, we are not prepared to go so far. A person approached by an eavesdropper with an offer to share in the information gathered through the eavesdropping would perhaps play the nobler part should he spurn the offer and shut his ears. However, it seems to us that at this point it would place too great a strain on human weakness to hold one liable in damages who merely succumbs to temptation and listens.

Of course, appellants did more than receive and peruse the copies of the documents taken from appellee's files; they published excerpts from them in the national press. But in analyzing a claimed breach of privacy, injuries from intrusion and injuries from publication should be kept clearly separate. Where there is intrusion, the intruder should generally be liable whatever the content of what he learns. An eavesdropper to the marital bedroom may hear marital intimacies, or he may hear statements of fact or opinion of legitimate interest to the public; for purposes of liability that should make no difference. On the other hand, where the claim is that private information concerning plaintiff has been published, the question of whether that information is genuinely private or is of public interest should not turn on the manner in which it has been obtained. Of course, both forms of invasion may be combined in the same case.

Here we have separately considered the nature of appellants' publications concerning appellee, and have found that the matter published was of obvious public interest. The publication was not itself an invasion of privacy. Since we have also concluded that appellants' role in obtaining the information did not make them liable to appellee for intrusion, their subsequent publication, itself no invasion of privacy, cannot reach back to render that role tortious.


The District Court ruled that appellants' receipt and subsequent use of photocopies of documents which appellants knew had been removed from appellee's files without authorization established appellants' liability for conversion. We conclude that appellants are not guilty of conversion on the facts shown.

Dean Prosser has remarked that "conversion is the forgotten tort."21 That it is not entirely forgotten is attested by the case before us. History has largely defined its contours, contours which we should now follow except where they derive from clearly obsolete practices or abandoned theories.22

Conversion is the substantive tort theory which underlay the ancient common law form of action for trover. A plaintiff in trover alleged that he had lost a chattel which he rightfully possessed,23 and that the defendant had found it and converted it to his own use. With time, the allegations of losing and finding became fictional, leaving the question of whether the defendant had "converted" the property the only operative one.24

The most distinctive feature of conversion is its measure of damages, which is the value of the goods converted.25 The theory is that the "converting" defendant has in some way treated the goods as if they were his own, so that the plaintiff can properly ask the court to decree a forced sale of the property from the rightful possessor to the converter.26

Because of this stringent measure of damages, it has long been recognized that not every wrongful interference with the personal property of another is a conversion.27 Where the intermeddling falls short of the complete or very substantial deprivation of possessory rights in the property, the tort committed is not conversion, but the lesser wrong of trespass to chattels.28

The Second Restatement of Torts has marked the distinction by defining conversion as:

"* * * An intentional exercise of dominion or control over a chattel which so seriously interferes with the right of another to control it that the actor may justly be required to pay the other the full value of the chattel."29

Less serious interferences fall under the Restatement's definition of trespass.30


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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • July 29, 1986
    ...that there be an intentional obtaining of information reasonably thought confidential by improperly intrusive means. See Pearson v. Dodd, 410 F.2d 701, 704 (D.C.Cir.), cert. denied, 395 U.S. 947, 89 S.Ct. 2021, 23 L.Ed.2d 465 (1969). The claim may be defeated if the intrusion is reasonable ......
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    • December 13, 1996 commit the intrusion. By doing so, respondents overlook what Miller and other decisions have held. The court in Pearson v. Dodd (D.C.Cir.1969) 410 F.2d 701, affirmed the grant of summary judgment for newspaper columnists in an invasion of privacy claim for intrusion based on their receip......
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