When a new couple arrived at Southside Christian Fellowship Church in August 2005, members welcomed them with open arms.
Soon, the new couple talked their way into private group support sessions in the Stockbridge home of church member Ken King.
During the private talks, church members confessed abortions, sexual orientation issues, drug addictions and other dark secrets.
No one knew the couple wasn’t actually interested in joining the church. Instead, they were private investigators hoping two church members, Bill and Leandra Pitts, would spill something they could use to discredit the pair in an ongoing lawsuit over a traffic accident.
The private eyes even tape-recorded the sessions.
“This is just too far,” said Atlanta lawyer Wayne Grant, who’s representing the couple in a lawsuit over the incident. “People have a right to expect they could be comfortable being candid in that setting. This is an invasion of privacy to the worst degree.”
The lawsuit filed last week in Fulton County State Court names Wisconson-based Progressive Northern Insurance Co., their lawyers and James Purgason Jr. and Paige Weeks of Merlin Investigations as defendants.
The lawsuit charges invasion of privacy, breach of confidentiality, emotional distress and fraud among other issues. It seeks unspecified damages.
Private investigator Purgason said he didn’t do anything wrong.
“We make sure we always fall well within the law,” Purgason said. “How it’s interpreted from there isn’t up to us.”
The lawsuit raises the question of what is going too far in such situations. Should folks, even those involved in lawsuits, expect they aren’t being spied upon while in church or at a group confessional at a minister’s home?
Glenn Christian of Coastal Investigations in Savannah serves as president of the Georgia Association of Private Investigators, the state private eyes association. He said private investigators routinely misrepresent themselves to get information. And they often record video and audio for clients when the target of the investigation is unaware. Georgia law generally allows recording of conversations as long as one party is aware of it.
The issue here is moral, not legal, Christian said.
“There’s a fine, fine line there,” Christian said. “There are some companies that wouldn’t do that.”
The current Fulton case stems from a 2004 traffic accident in Henry County involving the Pitts couple and Debra Harris. The couple sued Harris and her insurer, Allstate. But because Harris had only $50,000 in coverage, the couple’s lawyer, Grant, also eventually sought compensation from the
Pittses’ own insurer, Progressive.
The case was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum. But before that, while it was still being investigated, Progressive’s lawyers hired Merlin Investigations to check up on the couple.
King, an ordained minister who does not work for the church, said the support group has met in his home for more than 20 years. Each session started with a statement that whatever was said in the room would remain private. He said he never imagined people would lie their way in and tape the confessions.
“My rights to have a personal, confidential meeting in my home were violated,” King said. “Not only my rights, but the people who trusted me. It broke our hearts.”
King said once he learned the meetings had been taped he was forced to call his members together and break the news. The shocked prayer-group members broke down and cried, he said.
Some members left. And with others, King said, they’ve struggled to rebuild trust.
“They crossed the line when they came in and caused the people who trusted me this much harm,” King said. “That makes me very angry. And, I am not an angry man.”