Free Speech

Can't Seal Case Just Because It's Frivolous

"In nearly all civil and criminal litigation ..., one party asserts that the allegations leveled against it by another party are patently false"; but "if the purported falsity of the complaint's allegations were sufficient to seal an entire case, then the law would recognize a presumption to seal instead of a presumption of openness."

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From Miller v. Fluent Home, LLC, decided last month by Magistrate Judge Jared C. Bennett (D. Utah):

Contemporaneously with the filing of the Complaint, Defendants filed a document entitled "Defendants' Ex Parte Emergency Motion to Seal" in which they ask this court to seal this case. Defendants provide numerous exhibits showing that Plaintiff Gregory R. Miller … has been sanctioned in state court several times and, eventually, was labeled a vexatious litigant for asserting some of the claims that Mr. Miller has apparently brought to this court.

Because Defendants assert that at least some of the claims that Mr. Miller asserts in this action are the same baseless claims that got him disciplined in state court, Defendants ask this court to either seal the complaint or this entire case to protect Defendants from further reputational damage that may result if Mr. Miller'[s] purportedly improper accusations are allowed to remain public. As shown below, this court denies Defendants' motion to seal.

Although courts have discretion, sealing litigation documents, to say nothing of entire cases, is disfavored in the United States. In fact, DUCivR 5-2(a) provides, "Court records are presumptively open to the public. Unless restricted by statute or court order, the sealing of civil cases is highly discouraged. In extraordinary circumstances, a judge may order a case to be sealed by granting a party's motion or sua sponte."

The reason that sealing documents and entire cases is "disfavored" is because "[i]n the United States, there is both a constitutional (First Amendment) and a common law right of public access to judicial documents-defined as documents that are 'relevant to the performance of the judicial function and useful in the judicial process.'" Given this constitutional and common law foundation for open courts, court records are presumed open to the public. Indeed, sealing entire cases is even more disfavored because doing so "conceal[s] the very existence of lawsuits from the public" and, therefore, is a measure of last resort.

To overcome the heavy presumption in favor of keeping records and cases open to the public, a party must show that the interests of sealing a case "heavily outweigh the public interests in access," which requires the court to "weigh the interests of the public, which are presumptively paramount, against those advanced by the parties." "[T]he party seeking to keep records sealed bears the burden of justifying that secrecy …."

The court finds that Defendants have failed to carry their burden to seal the complaint and, in the alternative, the entire case. In nearly all civil and criminal litigation filed in the United States Courts, one party asserts that the allegations leveled against it by another party are patently false, and the result of the litigation may quickly prove that. However, if the purported falsity of the complaint's allegations were sufficient to seal an entire case, then the law would recognize a presumption to seal instead of a presumption of openness.

Tellingly, Defendants cannot cite any case—and the court cannot find any—that would allow either the complaint or this entire case to be sealed because an infamously litigious plaintiff has filed claims in a court after some of those claims had been previously rejected in another court. To deal with such circumstances, the law provides remedies such as issue preclusion, claim preclusion, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and vexatious litigant motions to restrict a plaintiff from filing new cases in federal court. However, sealing the complaint or the entire case is not among the options that the law provides.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: October 21, 1919

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  1. This comment has been sealed at the request of Twitter as possibly inciting violence.

    1. It must’ve been about Hunter having naked pictures of his niece on his laptop.

      Yikes.

  2. The court’s rationale only applies to repeated lawsuits which have been dismissed brought by the same lawyer.

    The typical “strike” suit will not be deterred. Such lawyers depend on publicity to coerce settlement, and that depends largely on gullible reporters being able to search courthouse records (thereby looking industrious) and quoting the outrageous allegations.

  3. This seems like a perfectly cromulent example of why loser pays should be the norm, to discourage vexatious litigators. It would also help if unpaid verdict debt were tracked and lawsuits for less than what is owed could not be filed. But IANAL and IANAP and will not be introducing legislation to that effect 🙂

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