Thursday, July 31, 2014
As readers of this Blog may recall, back in April 2008 NBC's Dateline program aired a segment called "Tricks of the Trade" that incorporated use of hidden cameras to record portions of seminars that allegedly showed insurance salesmen trained to market certain types of deferred payment annuities. The NBC program alleged that the sales techniques specifically and improperly targeted or misled older consumers.
Tyrone M. Clark and his company, Brokers' Choice of America (BCA), brought suit against NBC and certain employees in federal court in Colorado, claiming the Dateline program violated state law, including allegations of defamation. Clark and BCA also alleged constitutional violations. The federal district court dismissed the complaint in 2011.
On July 9, 2014 the Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the alleged 4th Amendment violations, but remanded for further proceedings on the allegations of defamation. At the heart of Clark's claim was the argument that a full, unedited viewing of his seminar for insurance salesmen would reveal that students were properly counseled that such "annuities were not for everyone" and that salespeople must give "full disclosure of various advantages and disadvantages of the annuity products." In other words, Clark claimed Dateline's excerpts were misleading, and therefore defamatory.
The Tenth Circuit's ruling on defamation stressed that it was reviewing the district court's ruling on NBC's motion to dismiss and thus must view the facts alleged in the complaint "as true and in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party," i.e., Clark and BCA. The 10th Circuit concluded, "Whether these allegations will survive summary judgment remains to be seen. The factual basis of the complaint ... is sufficient to state a plausible claim."
Further, the Tenth Circuit upheld the request by Clark and BCA to discovery of the full, unedited tapes surreptitiously recorded by NBC, production that NBC has resisted:
"BCA would be greatly prejudiced in its ability to prove the defamation claim without access to the unedited film. Dateline's First Amendment interests do not involve the disclosure of confidential information or confidential sources. The fact-finder is entitled to the best evidence available, particularly in a case like this, which asks whether the media's zeal to report and perhaps sensationalize should be tempered by its responsibility not to defame. For all of those reasons, BCA's factual allegations are sufficient to warrant discovery of the unedited film. The Colorado statue [on newsperson's privilege] is a shield, not a sword."
For additional details, see the 10th Circuit's ruling on Broker's Choice of America, Inc. v. NBC Universal, Inc. and commentary from the Colorado Bar Association's Legal Connection news.