Judge dismisses Mitchell suit against The Sun

Ex-congressman alleged trespassing by 2 reporters

March 25, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A $251 million lawsuit against The Sun and two of its reporters was thrown out yesterday by a Baltimore judge who decided that the reporters acted within the law when they interviewed former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell at a nursing home about the handling of his finances.

The lawsuit, filed by Mitchell a few days after the 2002 interview, alleged trespassing, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress when the reporters visited the former congressman at the Keswick Multi-Care Center in North Baltimore.

Mitchell did not contest the content of the subsequent May 31, 2002, article but contended that the reporters improperly gained access to his room and badgered him with questions once they were there.

But Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger found that the reporters - Ivan Penn and Walter F. Roche Jr. - did not break the law in their reporting or intend to harm Mitchell. "The plaintiff has to prove that the reporters wanted to inflict severe emotional distress on the congressman," Berger ruled. "The record does not support that."

Berger said because the reporters saw Mitchell during normal visiting hours and signed in at the front desk, their actions did not constitute trespassing. He also said Mitchell consented to the interview by answering the reporters' questions.

The judge made it clear to dozens of Mitchell's relatives and friends that he has high regard for the family.

The hearing took place in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, named for Parren Mitchell's older brother, a civil rights leader and family patriarch.

Outside the courtroom, Parren Mitchell's nephew, Michael B. Mitchell Sr., said the family planned to appeal the decision.

A Sun spokeswoman said the paper was pleased with the ruling. "The judge agreed with what we knew all along - our reporters behaved appropriately as they reported and worked on this story," said spokeswoman Mireille Grangenois.

Penn and Roche had gone to Keswick on May 29, 2002, to talk to the former congressman about the handling of his finances. Mitchell's bills, including more than $100,000 owed to Keswick, had not been paid by his nephew, Michael B. Mitchell Sr., who had power of attorney for his uncle.

The newspaper's investigation showed that the elder Mitchell's money had been used to pay expenses related to a Pigtown bar Michael Mitchell helped to run and to buy a car.

Parren Mitchell, who was frail and slowed by strokes, said he knew nothing about the purchase of the car, a 1998 Buick bought on his behalf by Michael Mitchell with a $23,163 loan payable in monthly installments over five years, according to the investigation. Parren Mitchell was sued in 2002 for $16,004.97 for an unpaid balance on the loan, plus interest and legal fees, the investigation found.

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