Greenpeace, Inc. v. The Dow Chemical Co.

In an opinion that should remind us all of the importance of properly disposing of documents, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Greenpeace’s claims of trespass, invasion of privacy, and conversion stemming, in part, from appellees’ alleged participation in rummaging through Greenpeace’s trash in order to obtain Greenpeace’s confidential information.  Greenpeace, Inc. v. The Dow Chemical Co., Case No. 13-CV-685 (D.C. C.A., Aug. 21, 2014) (Blackburne-Rigsby, J.).

Greenpeace alleged that two companies, Dow Chemical and Sasol North America and their PR firms, engaged in corporate espionage in order to undermine Greenpeace’s efforts.  To this end, Greenpeace asserted that the companies hired Beckett Brown International (BBI), a company staffed with former Secret Service and CIA agents, to root through Greenpeace’s trash.  They further alleged that BBI broke into Greenpeace’s offices and conducted physical surveillance of Greenpeace employees. These actions only came to light when a disgruntled BBI employee alerted a reporter.

Greenpeace initially filed suit in federal court alleging claims under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).  After that case was dismissed, it filed again, this time in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia alleging claims of trespass, conversion and invasion of privacy.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Greenpeace appealed.

The court upheld the dismissal.  First, it ruled that Greenpeace could not assert a claim of trespass because it could not establish that it had a possessory interest in the trash and recycling areas of its building.  These areas were for the common use of the buildings’ tenants and therefore Greenpeace was unable to demonstrate that it had exclusive control of the area.

Next, the Court affirmed that Greenpeace’s invasion of privacy claim based on physical intrusion into Greenpeace’s offices, was barred by a one-year statute of limitations.

Finally, the court ruled that Greenpeace could not maintain a claim of conversion of intangible property.  The court explained that, because Greenpeace “purposefully threw away or abandoned” documents containing confidential information, it could not now claim that it had a recognized property interest in them, particularly as it did not take steps to protect its garbage.

Practice Note:  This case should serve as a reminder that companies should properly discard of documents containing confidential information.