Free Speech

Can't Seal Police Abuse Settlement Amount Just Because Beneficiary is a Minor

The district court reasoned that sealing was justified because of "the child's privacy interest in being protected from financial predators or others who would harass the child simply because they know the amount received." No, said the Fifth Circuit.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In Monday's Bradley v. Ackal (5th Cir. 2020), written by Judge James E. Graves, Jr., Shandell Marie Bradley sued the Iberia Parish Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff, claiming the sheriff's department killed her husband, Victor White III. White was shot while he was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, after being arrested; the sheriff's department said he had committed suicide with a gun that hadn't been found when he was patted down, but Bradley claimed he was shot by someone in the sheriff's department. Bradley's lawsuit was brought on behalf of herself and her and White's child, AJW. The case settled, but court filings that indicated the settlement amount were place under seal; two local media outlets intervened to get the matter unsealed.

The district court refused to unseal the documents, but the Fifth Circuit reversed, relying on the common law right to access court records. This right creates a strong presumption, and the Fifth Circuit held it wasn't rebutted here:

First, the district court weighed in favor of non-disclosure "the child's privacy interest in being protected from financial predators or others who would harass the child simply because they know the amount received when the suit was settled." However, it is public information that a settlement was reached in this case and that Bradley, AJW's mother and sole living parent, is in control of AJW's property. Pursuant to Louisiana law, "Each parent has the right and the obligation to administer the property of the child. The parent must do so as a prudent administrator and is answerable for any damage caused by his fraud, fault, default, or neglect." There is no evidence AJW would face financial predation where Bradley is the property's steward.

Further, Bradley does not show or argue that Bradley or AJW has experienced any financial predation or financially-motivated harassment since the settlement was reached approximately two years ago. The district court and Bradley merely speculate that disclosing the settlement amount would increase the possibility of financial predation and related harassment and do not appear to account for the already publicly available information, namely, that a settlement was reached in this case and that Bradley is the steward of the settlement property.

Nor do they cite any authority that supports the proposition that disclosing a settlement amount increases the possibility of financial predation or related harassment or show that any court has weighed such a possibility in favor of nondisclosure. Nor is that proposition necessarily true as a matter of common sense: an effort to keep undisclosed a settlement amount where it is known that a settlement was reached and who the steward of the settlement amount is might increase the possibility of financial predation or related harassment because a financial predator might suspect that the settlement amount is much larger than the actual amount. See, e.g., Tomas Well, More than $6M paid out by sheriffs' offices in judgments, settlements since 2015; attorney fees add another $1.4M, LOUISIANA VOICE (July 16, 2018).

Moreover, lifting the seals here would not reveal AJW's name or other information that has been identified as warranting nondisclosure in cases involving a minor. For these reasons, this factor does not weigh in favor of non-disclosure.

Second, the district court weighed in favor of non-disclosure "the protection of the judicial process in permitting orders to be sealed." The district court, however, did not elaborate on this factor or cite any case where this was considered a factor. "Every court has supervisory power over its own records and files, and access has been denied where court files might have become a vehicle for improper purposes." This power, however, is not an interest, and there is a presumption in favor of disclosure. The court must weigh the interests in favor of and against disclosure to determine how to exercise its power. To hold otherwise would enshrine a circular logic according to which a district court's sealing order is appropriate because the district court has the power to issue the sealing order. For these reasons, "the protection of the judicial process in permitting orders to be sealed" carries no weight and should not factor into the analysis at all.

Third, the district court weighed in favor of non-disclosure "the chilling effect that the public's knowledge of the settlement might have on settlement negotiations and jury deliberations in upcoming similar cases." The district court noted that, at the time of its order, other civil cases alleging violations similar to those alleged in this case were pending against the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office. The district court does not explain how disclosing the settlement amount would have a "chilling effect" on negotiations and jury deliberations in similar cases…. The settlement amount's disclosure presumably might expose the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office to additional liability and litigation and, as such, might cause cases to settle differently than they would otherwise, but it is unclear how these possibilities would lead to or result from a chilling effect. In any case, that disclosure might harm the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office, its sheriff, or sheriff's deputies by exposing them to additional liability and litigation is of no consequence; "a litigant is not entitled to the court's protection from this type of harm" where it arises solely because of the common law right of access. Foltz v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 331 F.3d 1122, 1137 (9th Cir. 2003); cf. Herrnreiter v. Chicago Hous. Auth., 281 F.3d 634, 637 (7th Cir. 2002) (concluding that a party's "desire to keep the amount of its payment quiet (perhaps to avoid looking like an easy mark, and thus drawing more suits) is not nearly on a par with national security and trade secret information," which are traditionally kept secret for important policy reasons). Further, it is unclear how the risk of jury prejudice would lead to or result from a chilling effect. And in any event, any risk of jury prejudice because of the settlement amount's disclosure is addressable through voir dire….

Fourth, and finally, the district court weighed in favor of disclosure "the media's interest in releasing a sensational story regarding the amount of money paid to resolve the lawsuit without knowing anything about how the decisions were ultimately reached in the parties' settlement negotiations." This statement of the factor does not adequately address Appellants' interest in this case. While the facts of this case may be "sensational," the media's [and other people's] interest in judicial records and proceedings is generally more important than the  district  court's  characterization would imply….

Public access to the settlement amount will shed light on the resolution of a case that is of local and national interest and related to the criminal prosecutions of the Iberia Parish sheriff and sheriff's deputies for allegedly violating the law in ways similar to those that were alleged in this case—prosecutions that are also of local and national interest. For these reasons, this factor considered by the district court represents a mischaracterization of the public's right of access….

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  1. Is the federal court system like baseball where you have the Major League (Supreme Court), and then minor leagues (A, AA, AAA, district and circuit courts)?

    Does the level of a court reveal the general ability/competence of a judge like we can tell the general ability of a baseball player depending upon which league they’re in?

  2. While I fully agree with the Circuit’s decision, a different argument could be raised that the public learning the amount of the judgement (and believing it was too low) could lead to civil unrest.

    The victim was Black, and less egregious cases elsewhere have led to rioting in Missouri, Maryland, and elsewhere. One could then argue that a riot right now would be particularly burdensome on public resources dealing with the Wuhan Virus, and hence the the greater need/power to restrict information in a time of public “emergency.”

    I disagree with that argument, but I can see it being made…

    And the larger issue are the nondisclosure agreements in settlements — the public would have a very different attitude toward higher education if it knew of all the suits that are quietly being settled. The Title IX activists are doing a lot of things that truly “shocks the conscience” with most of it being buried in nondisclosure agreements.

  3. I think civil unrest after 2 years and a settlement would be unlikely, passions undoubtedly would have cooled by then.

    While I don’t know the facts of this case in at least one prominent case the actual events were significantly distorted, further inflaming public opinion.

    I also think letting the amount of the settlement be known would inform the public that Law Enforcement can be held accountable and provide a benchmark for future compensation in similar cases.

  4. There is one group that _has_ suffered financial predation: the taxpayers who paid the settlement for the cops’ crime. I cannot imagine any reason that justifies keeping them in the dark about how much they paid.

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