Pearson v. Dodd Case Brief

Summary of Pearson v. Dodd, 410 F.2d 701 (1969)

Facts: On several occasions in June and July, 1965, two former employees of Senator Dodd, at times with the assistance of two members of his staff, entered his office without authority and, without his knowledge, removed numerous documents from his files, made copies of them, replaced the originals, and turned over the copies to defendant Anderson, who was aware of the manner in which the copies had been obtained. Pearson and Anderson then published articles containing information gleaned from these documents.

Procedural Posture: The District Court ruled that Pearson and Anderson’s receipt and subsequent use of photocopies of documents which they knew had been removed from appellee’s files without authorization established their liability for conversion.

Issue: Does information obtained from documents which are returned to their owner fall under the protection of the law of property, enforceable by a suit for conversion?

Holding: No

Rule: Information copied from documents which are returned to their owner are not property subject to protection by suit for conversion.

Reasoning : Not every wrongful interference with the personal property of another is a conversion. Where the intermeddling falls short of the complete or very substantial deprivation of possessory rights in the property, the tort committed is not conversion, but the lesser wrong of trespass to chattels. In this case, Pearson and Anderson did not convert the physical documents taken from Dodd’s files; Dodd was not deprived of his use of them. Documents often have value above and beyond that springing from their physical possession. The question is whether the information taken by copying office files is of the type which the law of conversion protects. Ideas and information are not subject to legal protection unless they are (1) gathered at some cost and sold as a commodity, (2) formulated with labor and inventive genius, or (3) constitute instruments of fair and effective commercial competition. In this case, none of the information amounts to literary property, scientific invention, or secret plans formulated for conduct of commerce, nor does it appear to be information intended for sale by Dodd. Thus, no conversion of the physical contents of Dodd’s files took place, and the information copied from the documents in those files was not property subject to protection by suit for conversion.

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