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Kendrick v. Fox Television

June 1, 1995


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (Hon. Colleen Kottar-Kotelly, Trial Judge).

Before Wagner, Chief Judge, Ferren, Associate Judge, and Gallagher, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

FERREN, Associate Judge: Appellant, Solomon Kendrick, appeals the trial court's order granting summary judgment for appellees, the District of Columbia and Deputy Chief of Police Jimmy L. Wilson (the "District defendants") and Fox Television Stations, Inc., WTTG, National Broadcasting Company, Inc., and NBC Subsidiary (WRC-TV), Inc. (the "media defendants"). Kendrick contends the trial court erred in ruling that (1) the District defendants had absolute immunity from suit, and that (2) the media defendants were not negligent as a matter of law. We affirm.


Operation Recovery

Appellant Kendrick, an executive assistant to the Deputy Superintendent of the District of Columbia public schools, owns a rent-controlled apartment building called Capitol Terrace. Located next to Woodson Junior High School, Capitol Terrace has been the site of illegal drug activities for several years. Since late 1988, the community and the authorities have organized to fight against drug dealing and crack dens at Capitol Terrace, and the press has covered their efforts. *fn1

On February 6, 1989, the government carried out "Operation Recovery," a multi-agency, two phase operation comprised of a drug raid and housing inspections at Capitol Terrace. During this operation, housing inspectors and fire marshals inspected 49 units, found 833 routine code violations and 80 emergency violations, and assessed $6,350 in civil fines. The police, however, did not recover any drugs or make any drug related arrests. Channel 4 Reports

On February 3, 1989, three days before "Operation Recovery," National Broadcasting Company, Inc. and its local affiliate, WRC-TV (together "Channel 4") received news of the planned raid, *fn2 and Channel 4 reporter Pat Lawson Muse was assigned to cover the story. Muse arrived at Capitol Terrace at 10 a.m. on February 6, while Operation Recovery was in process. She interviewed Capitol Terrace tenants, who told her they were afraid to identify themselves because Kendrick had threatened to evict them if they complained about conditions in the building. Muse also interviewed Deputy Chief Wilson at the scene. Wilson told Muse that the police were looking into allegations that Kendrick might have tipped off drug dealers about the raid. Wilson added that he would be seeking a warrant for Kendrick's arrest for obstruction of Justice.

After interviewing Wilson, Muse tried to locate Kendrick for comment. She went to his office but was unable to find him. She attempted without success to reach him by telephone. *fn3 Later in the day, Muse called Wilson and reconfirmed that the police were still looking into allegations that Kendrick had tipped off drug dealers at Capitol Terrace.

On the evening of February 6, 1989, Channel 4 ran news accounts of Operation Recovery on its 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. broadcasts. Channel 4 reported that tenants "say that the landlord frequently intimidates them and threatens to throw them out if they make trouble" and that "Deputy Chief Wilson says he is looking into allegations that Dr. Kendrick may have tipped off the dealers to today's surprise raid . . . . We have been unable to reach Kendrick." *fn4

The next day, February 7, Muse reached Kendrick by telephone and spoke with him at length. During this conversation, Kendrick acknowledged that he had attended a meeting with certain city officials where they had discussed housing inspections of Capitol Terrace, but he denied knowing about the drug raid or tipping off drug dealers. Kendrick initially agreed to a television interview but later changed his mind.

After going back to Capitol Terrace to update her information and then speaking with Deputy Chief Wilson again, Muse reported Kendrick's statements on the February 7 evening news:

On the advice of his attorney, Dr. Kendrick would not go on camera today, but did tell us there are no major violations [at Capitol Terrace] . . . and he claims trafficking here had gotten out of hand because police have done little to help him bring it under control. Police dispute that. . While Wilson says he has information leading him to believe Kendrick may have tipped off dealers to yesterday's surprise inspection, Kendrick says he didn't even know police would be there, that police themselves must have tipped off the dealers. Kendrick also disputes tenant claims that he collects rent money from dealers, saying that he has no way of knowing where a person's rent money comes from . . The landlord says he last renovated the building in 1982, but claims that in recent years he's been unable to get the city to help him get loans to fix things up. He says he's not an absentee landlord, but a victim of tenants who are sympathetic to dealers that neither he nor the police can control.

Thereafter, on February 11, Channel 4 covered an antidrug rally at the Woodson Junior High School where Mayor Barry and Councilmember Crawford discussed problems at Capitol Terrace apartments. On February 14, Channel 4 broadcast an interview with a flooring contractor at Capitol Terrace who described how drug dealers controlled the complex. As part of this broadcast, Channel 4 reported that "Kendrick says that he has cooperated in the fight against the dealers, even letting police set up an observation post in an apartment." Channel 5 Reports

Fox Television Stations and WTTG (together "Channel 5") had been investigating the controversy at Capitol Terrace for some time before February 6, 1989, as part of the nightly news show entitled "City Under Seige," produced by Bruce Becker, which focused on drug related issues in the District of Columbia. Field producer Jackie Bensen had visited the apartment complex and interviewed tenants who had told her of the same threats that tenants had told Muse about on February 6. On January 26 and February 3, "City Under Seige" ran pieces on the mounting concern of parents over drug related violence at Capitol Terrace.

Bensen first learned of Operation Recovery on February 7, when she read a story that had come over the Associated Press (AP) wire at 10 p.m. on the night of February 6. After reading this story, Bensen went to Capitol Terrace, where she talked with housing inspectors and neighborhood leaders. Although Bensen tried to reach Kendrick twice by telephone at ...

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