Pontbriand v. Sundlun

Citation699 A.2d 856
Decision Date15 August 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95-571-A,95-571-A
PartiesClaire C. PONTBRIAND, Russell W. Klowan, Louis Quigley, Francine G. Buckley, P.A. Buckley, Bethanne Dressel-Hostetter, David G. Hostetter, and George K. Mooradian v. Bruce SUNDLUN, Governor of the State of Rhode Island, and John and Jane Does 1-10. ppeal.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island

John Glasson, Providence, for Plaintiff.

Richard B. Wooley, Asst. Attorney General, for Defendant.



WEISBERGER, Chief Justice.

This case comes before us on appeal by the plaintiffs from a summary judgment entered in the Superior Court in favor of the defendants and from denial of the plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment. Given the posture of this case, the pleadings, affidavits, admissions, and other materials before the court must be viewed in the light most favorable to the parties opposing the summary-judgment motions. O'Hara v. John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., 574 A.2d 135, 136 (R.I.1990). The moving parties are then entitled to prevail only if the record reveals no remaining issues of material fact, and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. On appeal we review the trial justice's decision to grant a summary-judgment motion de novo, applying the same standard. Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. v. Dial Media, Inc., 122 R.I. 571, 579, 410 A.2d 986, 990 (1980). Because we are reviewing a decision rendered on summary-judgment motions filed by both of the adversary parties, we have treated the relevant allegations of both parties in the most favorable light insofar as they opposed the respective motions for summary judgment. 1 On that basis we sustain the plaintiffs' appeal in part, reverse the trial justice's grant of summary judgment for the defendants and affirm his denial of the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment.

I Introduction and Facts of the Case

This case presents issues of first impression requiring this court to consider important aspects of what Justice Louis D. Brandeis once termed "the right to be let alone." 2 The plaintiffs before this court, all of whom were depositors in various insolvent financial institutions (hereinafter plaintiffs or depositors), contend that information in respect to their accounts at these financial institutions was wrongfully released to the news media. They argue that this information was furnished to the state for a lawful but limited purpose and should have remained confidential. Their unusual claim arises out of the traumatic events of January 1991.

On the first day of that month, the Governor of the State of Rhode Island, the Honorable Bruce Sundlun (the Governor), took emergency action under G.L.1956 chapter 18 of title 19 3 and declared a bank emergency in Rhode Island, thereby closing all state-chartered banks and credit unions not covered by federal deposit insurance. The closing of these financial institutions was designed to allow banks and credit unions that had been formerly insured by the insolvent Rhode Island Share and Deposit Indemnity Corporation (RISDIC) to obtain adequate deposit insurance prior to reopening. Some of the closed institutions were able to obtain deposit insurance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and reopened, but a number of such institutions could not meet the requirements for federal insurance and remained closed. The closure of these institutions denied more than 190,000 people access to over $1 billion in deposits. In response to this ongoing banking crisis, the Governor proposed to the Legislature the enactment of the Rhode Island Depositors Economic Protection Act (DEPCO act), now codified as G.L.1956 chapter 116 of title 42. The act was designed to end the continuing banking crisis by reimbursing depositors at the failed institutions with public funds.

One provision of the DEPCO bill, however, met opposition. This section proposed to reimburse all non-offending depositors up to the full amount of their deposits, even if their account balances exceeded the $100,000 limit to which the FDIC would have insured deposits. According to the Governor, this provision was estimated to cost the state an extra $80 million. The Governor contends that uncertainty regarding the identity of these "over $100,000" depositors, as well as suspicions that they were all politically well-connected people, was affecting legislators' judgments about the merits of passing the DEPCO act and appropriating the necessary funds to compensate the depositors. The Governor said that to "clear the air," and to aid passage of the DEPCO bill, he decided that the names of those depositors who had deposits in excess of $100,000 should be released. On January 30, 1991, he released to the media a list that contained the names of more than 900 people who had deposits of over $100,000 in the closed institutions. 4 Along with each name was set forth the individual's Social Security number and account balance. 5 Also attached was a cover memo dated January 30, 1991 6 which reads as follows:

"To All Members of the Media Receiving the Attached Documents:

The attached documents contain private information. We believe that the public interest in the present vigorous debate about legislation to provide public funds for the private benefit of the over $100,000 depositors justifies the release of this data. We also do not desire to doctor or redact the documents.

We strongly urge you to respect the private nature of the enclosed information. We recognize your significant obligation to provide the information necessary for full and public debate on a significant possible expenditure of state and taxpayer funds. We ask that you maintain the privacy of the enclosed information to the maximum extent consistent with your obligations."

Included among those on the list were the names, Social Security numbers, and account balances of plaintiffs in this case. Following the release of this information by the Governor, the Evening Times, a newspaper in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, published a partial list of the depositors, along with their account balances. Two of the depositors pressing claims before this court were listed in the Evening Times. Other than the republication in the Evening Times there is no indication that other names were published either by the Evening Times or other newspapers.

The Governor contends that his action in releasing the names of those depositors with accounts over $100,000 dispelled suspicion and allowed the DEPCO bill eventually to pass, thereby ensuring that the depositors were fully compensated.

The depositors filed suit in Superior Court on September 9, 1991, against Bruce Sundlun, Governor of the State of Rhode Island, in his official capacity, and various unnamed defendants. 7 The plaintiffs allege violations by the Governor of the privacy protections afforded by several state and federal statutes, to wit, G.L.1956 §§ 9-1-28.1, 19-14-2, 8 38-2-1, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 12 U.S.C. § 3401, and the Federal Privacy Act of 1974, P.L. 93-579, § 7, as well as violations of the protections afforded by both the Federal and State Constitutions. The depositors sought injunctive relief preventing further release of the information and a declaration, pursuant to G.L.1956 § 9-30-1, that the Governor's actions were illegal. They also sought compensatory and punitive damages and attorney's fees. The petition for preliminary injunction was passed without hearing.

After a period of time, both parties filed motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. After reading the parties' submissions, the trial justice rendered a decision from the bench on August 29, 1995. 9 In his decision the trial justice noted the Governor's reliance upon the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 96 S.Ct. 1619, 48 L.Ed.2d 71 (1976), which had established that an individual has no protectable privacy interest in a bank record. He further noted the Governor's contention that the banking crisis and the authority granted by chapter 18 of title 19 allowed him to disclose the information. Finally he observed that the names of only two plaintiffs had been published in the Evening Times. Without further specifying his grounds of decision, he found that "there is merit in the arguments which are raised by the defendant in this case" and granted the Governor's motion for summary judgment. The instant appeal followed.

II Standing to Sue

We first address the Governor's contention that because only the names of plaintiffs Claire C. Pontbriand and Russell W. Klowan were actually "published" in the article in the Evening Times, the other plaintiffs had no standing to sue.

In Rhode Island Ophthalmological Society v. Cannon, 113 R.I. 16, 317 A.2d 124 (1974), we discussed our requirements for standing in light of Association of Data Processing Service Organizations, Inc. v. Camp, 397 U.S. 150, 90 S.Ct. 827, 25 L.Ed.2d 184 (1970), and held:

"It is our belief that standing can now be determined by our adoption of the first of the Data Processing criteria. The question is whether the person whose standing is challenged has alleged an injury in fact resulting from the challenged [act]. If he [or she] has, he [or she] satisfies the requirement of standing." Cannon, 113 R.I. at 26, 317 A.2d at 129.

We described our standing requirement as "whether the plaintiff alleges that the challenged action has caused him injury in fact, economic or otherwise." Id. at 22, 317 A.2d at 128 (quoting Camp, 397 U.S. at 152, 90 S.Ct. at 829, 25 L.Ed.2d at 187). 10 Sometimes referred to as the "injury in fact" requirement, see, e.g., Cannon, 113 R.I. at 23, 317 A.2d at 128, this has been described by Justice Scalia in an oft-quoted passage as "an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized * * * and (b) actual or imminent, not 'conjectural' or 'hyp...

To continue reading

Request your trial
301 cases
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • September 1, 2005
    ...in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, as each opposed the corresponding motion for summary judgment. Pontbriand v. Sundlun, 699 A.2d 856, 859 (R.I.1997). We have made it clear that "a litigant opposing a motion for summary judgment has the burden of proving by competent eviden......
  • Intercity Maintenance v. Local 254 Serv. Employees
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Rhode Island
    • July 29, 1999
    ...Restatement as an authority on the matter of privacy torts. See Swerdlick v. Koch, 721 A.2d 849, 861-62 (R.I.1998); Pontbriand v. Sundlun, 699 A.2d 856, 863 (R.I.1997). The Restatement defines the scope of the right to privacy: "Except for the appropriation of one's name or likeness, an act......
  • Bandoni v. State, 95-563-A
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • July 21, 1998
    ...and preserved, and shall be of paramount obligation in all legislative, judicial and executive proceedings") with Pontbriand v. Sundlun, 699 A.2d 856, 870 (R.I.1997) (holding that plaintiffs seeking monetary and other relief under a constitutionally based cause of action for invasion of pri......
  • Walden v. City of Providence, C.A. No. 04-304 S.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Rhode Island
    • July 6, 2007
    ...to a reasonable man." This requires both a subjective and objectively reasonable expectation of privacy. See Pontbriand v. Sundlun, 699 A.2d 856 (R.I. 1997). Defendants argue that Plaintiffs did not have a subjective or objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in their telephone calls ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Erasing Transgender Public Figures' Former Identity with the Right to Be Forgotten.
    • United States
    • Federal Communications Law Journal Vol. 73 No. 2, February 2021
    • February 1, 2021
    ...2.17, supra note 44 ("Inherently private facts include a person's financial, medical, or sexual life."). (57.) See Pontbriand v. Sundlun, 699 A.2d 856, 865 (R.I. 1997); see also RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS [section] 652D cmt. c. (noting that this inquiry will be relative to the customs an......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT