December 22, 2014

Tenth Circuit: Non-Disclosure of Unedited Film Substantially Prejudiced Party Claiming Defamation

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Brokers’ Choice of America, Inc. v. NBC Universal, Inc. on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Tyrone Clark and his company, Brokers’ Choice of America, Inc. (BCA) sued NBC Universal and some of its employees after Dateline aired a segment called “Tricks of the Trade” that featured snippets of Clark taken from one of his two-day “Annuity University” seminars filmed at BCA’s Colorado campus. The snippets were surreptitiously recorded, and Clark asserts that they were illegally filmed. Only 112 words were taken from the two-day seminar and were used to portray Clark and BCA as teaching insurance agents to employ misrepresentations and use questionable tactics in order to dupe seniors into purchasing inappropriate annuity products. BCA claims that the statements were taken out of context in order to create a false impression and defame Clark and BCA. BCA also asserts a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim because Dateline obtained false credentials from Alabama officials in order to surreptitiously film the seminar.

Dateline moved to dismiss the complaint, maintaining that BCA did not allege sufficient facts to show defamation. It also sought to dismiss BCA’s civil rights claims, stating that BCA’s factual allegations did not demonstrate the help received from Alabama officials was joint conduct. The court granted Dateline‘s motion. BCA appealed, contending the district court failed to credit its allegations as true and improperly made factual determinations to reach its conclusions.

The Tenth Circuit first examined the court’s dismissal of BCA’s claims. The Tenth Circuit determined that BCA had alleged sufficient facts to support its defamation claims, noting that the correct inquiry was not the district court’s determination that the statements were substantially true but rather whether the characterization of BCA was substantially true, a question of fact to be determined by a jury. Because Dateline had contested discovery of its unedited video, the only evidence that could have been used to determine whether the characterization was substantially true, the Tenth Circuit turned its inquiry to the video.

After a lengthy discussion, the Tenth Circuit determined that Colorado’s media privilege statute, C.R.S. § 13-90-119, required disclosure of the video. The Tenth Circuit found that BCA would be substantially prejudiced by non-disclosure, and noted that the statute is to be used as a shield to protect confidential informants, not a sword to defeat potentially viable claims. The “probable falsity” test was unwarranted where no confidential informant existed.

As to BCA’s § 1983 claims, the Tenth Circuit found no merit. The Tenth Circuit noted that the government frequently engages in deception to further investigative interests, and the Alabama officials’ furnishing of broker licenses to the Dateline crew amounted to no more than investigative deception.

The dismissal of the § 1983 claim was affirmed. The dismissal of the defamation claim was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

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