Appeals court reinstates Mitchell case

Ex-congressman's $251 million intrusion suit against 2 Sun reporters could go to jury

Maryland

September 30, 2005|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

The state's second-highest court ruled yesterday that a former congressman can proceed with a lawsuit against The Sun alleging trespassing because of an interview two reporters conducted inside his nursing home in 2002.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals set aside most of a Baltimore Circuit Court judge's summary judgment that had tossed out former U.S. Rep. Parren J. Mitchell's $251 million suit against the newspaper.

Yesterday's ruling by a three-judge panel means that Mitchell can proceed with his lawsuit as it pertains to trespassing and intrusion.

"We are not persuaded that, as a matter of law, [the reporters'] unannounced entry into the private nursing room ... was within the scope of customs prevailing in the community," the appeals judges wrote in their 35-page opinion. "[Mitchell's] private room was, for all intents and purposes, his home."

Dale Cohen, The Sun's vice president of human resources and legal affairs, said yesterday that the newspaper would be "evaluating all options to determine the best way to move forward."

"We're disappointed in the court's ruling, but we continue to be very certain that we will prevail in this case," he said.

Larry S. Gibson, one of Mitchell's attorneys, called the opinion "an important step" and said the former congressman would be seeking to bring the matter to a Baltimore jury as soon as possible.

"The purpose of the congressman's lawsuit is to send a message - to stand up for senior citizens and persons who are vulnerable," Gibson said. "His entire career has been sending messages and standing up for the little guy."

The lawsuit stems from an interview in May 2002 at Keswick Multi-Care Center in North Baltimore. Reporters Walter F. Roche Jr. and Ivan Penn asked Mitchell questions about his finances and more than $100,000 in unpaid bills. Roche now works for the Los Angeles Times.

Days after the interview, the former congressman filed a suit alleging that the reporters improperly gained access to his room and badgered him with questions.

The reporters have said that Mitchell answered their questions willingly, but Mitchell contends he asked them to leave before talking.

Circuit Judge Stuart R. Berger ruled in March 2004 that the reporters did not break the law in their reporting methods. The judge granted a summary judgment dismissing the entire suit.

In an opinion released yesterday, the panel unanimously decided that Mitchell can proceed with his complaints of trespassing and "intrusion upon seclusion," but that he cannot claim "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

The ruling indicates that Mitchell's suit is worthy of a full hearing. A court date has not been set.

"A reasonable trier of fact could conclude that [Mitchell's] responses to the reporters' questions were not given voluntarily, but rather were given in an effort to be rid of the two men who had entered his private nursing room uninvited and thereafter refused to leave," the opinion states.

Mitchell, in his 80s and in frail health after suffering strokes, has been in a nursing home since 2000. A newspaper investigation of Mitchell's finances revealed that bills for his care at Keswick had gone unpaid.

Meanwhile, according to the 2002 article, his money was being used by a nephew, Michael B. Mitchell Sr., to pay for a car and expenses related to Michael Mitchell's Pigtown bar. The nephew had power of attorney.

Since then, the elder Mitchell has settled his disputes with Keswick and moved to a Towson nursing home.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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