Right of Access

Can't Seal Court Files Just to Keep Them from One's Current Employer

or from one's house of worship or from the nursing board.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Abdul-Haqq v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, decided Wednesday by Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton (N.D. Cal.):

Years ago, plaintiff filed Kaiser I and Kaiser II as actions for employment discrimination against the various medical organizations named above. Ultimately, the court dismissed both actions with prejudice and entered judgment against plaintiff. The court terminated Kaiser I on April 10, 2015 and Kaiser II on May 1, 2017…. [P]laintiff [now] asks the court to seal her "case file," which the court understands to mean all records publicly accessible on each action's docket.

Plaintiff contends that a third-party, … who is the significant other of plaintiff's former significant other, … has "taken the information that is available online which has some of [plaintiff's] medical diagnosis and has harass[e]d, threatened, [and] taunted [plaintiff] to improperly disclose [the subject] records." …

The court rejected the request, for the usual reason that court files are presumptively open; but I found this passage noteworthy:

Plaintiff principally asserts that "Smith has made it clear that she will send information to my employment … and my place of worship for the gratification of public scandal, to circulate libelous statements, and to cause financial harm." … [But] plaintiff fails to explain why any "disclosure" by Smith of the subject records to plaintiff's job, house of worship, or nursing board would be improper. The contents of the filings in this action speak for themselves and, in any event, have long been publicly available to the above referenced institutions in the first instance.

I think this is right, and important. It's true that the mere fact that the filings are "publicly available" to plaintiff's employer or others doesn't mean that the employer actually saw them. But it does mean that they are something that everyone, including the employer, is entitled to see. That Abdul-Haqq wants to keep that information from her employer, house of worship, and nursing board doesn't mean that she is entitled to do so, or to enlist the courts in helping her do so.

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