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CORPORATE TRAINING UNLIMITED, INC. v. NBC

October 17, 1997

CORPORATE TRAINING UNLIMITED, INC., DONALD M. FEENEY, JR., and JUDY G. FEENEY, Plaintiffs, against NATIONAL BROADCASTING COMPANY, INC., Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: DEARIE

 DEARIE, District Judge.

 This is a defamation action by Corporate Training Unlimited, Inc. ("CTU") and its principals, Donald and Judy Feeney, against the National Broadcasting Company, Inc. ("NBC"). The action arises from the manner in which plaintiffs were portrayed, and from certain statements made about them, in a March 23, 1993 Dateline NBC broadcast segment entitled "Rambo Goes to Reykjavik" (the "Broadcast"). An additional claim, for tortious interference with prospective contractual relations, has been withdrawn by stipulation. On December 1, 1994, this Court denied NBC's motion to dismiss. Corporate Training Unlimited, Inc. v. National Broadcasting Co., Inc., 868 F. Supp. 501 (E.D.N.Y. 1994). NBC now moves for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, that motion is granted.

 Background

 CTU is a privately-held security corporation which specializes, among other things, in attempting to rescue American children who have been abducted overseas by non-custodial parents. CTU claims it has successfully returned American children to the United States from Tunisia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Sweden, Peru, and Ecuador. Dateline NBC is a weekly television magazine program broadcast by NBC.

 In 1992, CTU was retained on behalf of two American citizens, Fred Pittman and Brian Grayson, seeking to locate and repatriate their respective daughters. The girls' Icelandic mother, Erna Eyjolfsdottir (Erna Pittman Grayson) had taken them to Iceland in violation of Florida court orders. CTU's mission ended unsuccessfully, with the two daughters remaining in Iceland and Donald Feeney, CTU's President, and Brian Grayson being arrested, tried and convicted of kidnapping in an Icelandic court.

 This mission was the subject of the Broadcast, which runs approximately fifteen minutes and is entitled "Rambo Goes to Reykjavik." The Broadcast consists primarily of a series of excerpts from interviews of the participants, interspersed with voiceover commentary supplied by NBC reporter Brian Ross. Those interviewed include: Erna Eyjolfsdottir, the Icelandic mother of Elizabeth Pittman and Anna Grayson; Brian Grayson, Anna's father and the one-time husband of Erna Eyjolfsdottir; plaintiff Donald Feeney; Olbia Grayson, Brian Grayson's mother; Ginger Grayson, Brian's then-current wife; Elizabeth Pittman, the daughter of Erna Eyjolfsdottir and Fred Pittman; and plaintiff Judy Feeney.

 The Broadcast begins with images of Erna Eyjolfsdottir and Brian Grayson as they separately describe their marriage, breakup and the custody battle over their five-year-old daughter Anna and eleven-year-old Elizabeth, the daughter of Eyjolfsdottir and her first husband, Fred Pittman. Ross then introduces plaintiffs as "a group of self-styled American commandos who have gained great fame, going around the world with their own kind of solution for complicated international custody cases like the one involving Etna *fn1" and Brian." According to the Broadcast, "the Feeneys have come to be known as American heroes," the subjects of a book and a television movie about one of their successful child "rescue" missions. The video segment during this introduction includes the image of a car swerving at high speed, screeching and spinning to a halt, while individuals, many clad in military fatigues, are shown training in military-style maneuvers. In a later shot, an off-camera voice yells "Fire," while the viewer sees a close-up of the hands of various individuals firing weapons at a target during what is presumably a combat training session. The narrator then describes plaintiffs: "Operating out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Donald and Judy Feeney run a company that trains corporate security guards. The company has been in bankruptcy since 1991 -- the Feeneys say because they lose money helping American parents."

 According to the narrator: "Feeney is a former decorated Delta Force commando, who was part of the failed mission to rescue American hostages in Iran. . . . Feeney was forced to leave the military in 1986 for less-than-satisfactory-service -- what Feeney calls some 'minor financial improprieties.'" (Tr. at 10.)

 The Broadcast continues with a description of the elaborate CTU plot to retrieve Anna and Elizabeth from Iceland. CTU operatives went to Iceland to convince Eyjolfsdottir that they were doing advance work for a Sylvester Stallone movie, and that her home might be used as a location for filming. The story that a movie starring Sylvester Stallone would be filmed in Iceland later received significant newspaper coverage in that country, and the Broadcast suggests this coverage subjected plaintiffs' subsequent activities to public scrutiny in Iceland.

 As part of the mission, CTU flew Eyjolfsdottir to Switzerland to meet Donald Feeney, who was posing as the film's director. Because Eyjolfsdottir brought only one of the girls with her on that trip, plaintiffs did not attempt to "rescue" the daughters at that time. Shortly after Eyjolfsdottir returned to Iceland, CTU put her up in a Reykjavik hotel. After an evening of drinking, plaintiffs attempted to recapture Anna and Elizabeth while Erna was sleeping. After Erna awoke and reported her daughters missing, Judy Feeney, who had taken Elizabeth out of the country, was stopped by authorities in Luxembourg. Don Feeney and Brian Grayson, who had traveled to Iceland to assist in the operation, were stopped by Icelandic authorities before they could transport Anna out of the country. Both girls were returned to their mother, and Donald Feeney and Brian Grayson were later convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to prison.

 According to the Broadcast, the "American commandos bungled mission." Reporter Ross adds: "We talked with the Graysons last week, just before the Supreme Court of Iceland held up [sic] Brian's conviction and ordered him to prison for two more months. The Graysons say they now regret ever getting involved with the commandos, and they are beginning to wonder if the Feeneys told them the truth, especially about what happened to all the money the Graysons gave them." Olbia Grayson, Brian's mother, had paid plaintiffs approximately $ 40,000.

 During the Broadcast, Ross and the Graysons discuss some of the Feeneys' requests for money, including requests for additional funds to hire a private jet big enough to transport Grayson and his child, along with a crew from CBS' 60 Minutes. (Tr. at 13.) Ross reports that no private jet was ever hired. (Tr. at 14.) The Broadcast continues with Ross stating: "Now back in the United States, Feeney's wife, Judy, in one final twist, claims there was no kidnapping, no law broken, because Etna was in on the scheme, and had been paid [$ 5,000] to let the children go." (Tr. at 14.) Erna Eyjolfsdottir is then quoted denying the accusation. Ross adds in a voiceover: "Authorities in Iceland agree. And for Etna, the story about $ 5,000 to sell Anna and Elizabeth is the final outrage, the final lie, from a group of Americans who some call heroes." There is footage of the children coloring, then a close-up of Eyjolfsdottir: "What they did to me and my children, I do not see any heroes. I see people that lie and destroy lives. I don't see any heroes at all." (Tr. at 14.)

 In the last minute or so of the Broadcast, NBC provides a summary. The exchange between Ross and Stone Phillips begins as follows:

 
ROSS: Tonight, both Don Feeney and Brian Grayson are in prison in Iceland: Grayson for two months; Feeney, the commando, for two years. Feeney and his wife, Judy, say this is the first time one of their missions has failed. And over the last few days, we've heard from the families of five children who the Feeneys have brought back to this country, families which have nothing but praise for the way the Feeneys operate. Stone:
 
PHILLIPS: But the tactics, I would have to say, are unlike any commando tactics I've ever seen, Brian.
 
ROSS: Well, that's what the Graysons are saying now. They wonder about these champagne tactics, all the limousines and the hotels and the first-class lifestyle.

 (Tr. at 14-15.) After further discussion, the Broadcast ends with the words of Brian Ross: "There are some 4500 American children in similar cases, but the State Department says going the route of the commandos is folly; that in fact, you're better off spending the money on lawyers in the country where the child might be." (Tr. at 15.)

 The Complaint

 The complaint alleges, in pertinent part, that:

 
Through statements, portrayals, depictions, and implications, the Broadcast defamed CTU, Don Feeney, and Judy Feeney in the following ways, among others:
 
(a) Falsely and continuously referring to and characterizing CTU operatives and the Feeneys as "Rambo"s.
 
(b) Falsely and continuously referring to, characterizing, portraying, and depicting CTU operatives and the Feeneys as violent.
 
(c) Falsely portraying and depicting CTU and the Feeneys to be violent in the context of a child custody case.
 
(d) Falsely stating that the Feeneys and CTU supply "simple," violent solutions to "complex" custody cases.
 
(e) Falsely stating that CTU had been in bankruptcy since 1991.
 
(f) Falsely stating that Don Feeney had been forced to leave the Army.
 
(g) Falsely implying that Don Feeney had been dishonorably ...

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