Free Speech

Can't Seal a Case Just Because the Parties Settled


The parties in Woods v. Rocky Vista Univ. (a disability discrimination claim brought by a student against a university) asked for the docket to be sealed:

2. On May 19, 2020, Plaintiff filed a Complaint with Jury Demand [ECF No. 01] in
this matter.

3. On November 17, 2020, the Parties entered into a Confidential Settlement
Agreement and General Release ("Agreement") in the above-captioned matter.

4. On November 20, 2020, the Parties filed a Joint Stipulation of Dismissal with
Prejudice [ECF No. 32].

5. As part of the consideration described in the Agreement, the Parties agreed to file
a joint motion requesting that the Court restrict access to the records in this lawsuit. Additionally, the public has no valid interest in the contents of these records.

6. Pursuant to D.C.COLO.LCivR 7.2, the parties request that entire proceeding related
to the above-captioned matter be deemed a Level 1 Restriction, allowing only access by the parties and the Court….

No, Judge Daniel D. Domenico held today:

The parties request that this case be restricted, but they have failed to (1) show that a private interest in restriction outweighs the presumption of public access to court filings; (2) identify a clearly defined, serious injury that will result if access is not restricted; and (3) explain why there is no less-restrictive means available than complete restriction of the case. See D.C.COLO.LCivR 7.2.

Seems quite right to me, even when the case went no further than the filing of the complaint and then the settlement, as the Second Circuit held in Bernstein v. Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann (2016):

The fact that a suit is ultimately settled without a judgment on the merits does not impair the "judicial record" status of pleadings. It is true that settlement of a case precludes the judicial determination of the pleadings' veracity and legal sufficiency. But attorneys and others submitting pleadings are under an obligation to ensure, when submitting pleadings, that "the factual contentions [made] have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery."

In any event, the fact of filing a complaint, whatever its veracity, is a significant matter of record. Even in the settlement context, the inspection of pleadings allows "the public [to] discern the prevalence of certain types of cases, the nature of the parties to particular kinds of actions, information about the settlement rates in different areas of law, and the types of materials that are likely to be sealed." Thus, pleadings are considered judicial records "even when the case is pending before judgment or resolved by settlement." IDT Corp., 709 F.3d at 1223 (citations omitted); accord Stone v. Univ. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 178, 180 n.* (4th Cir.1988); Laurie Doré, Secrecy by Consent: The Use and Limits of Confidentiality in the Pursuit of Settlement, 74 Notre Dame L. Rev. 283, 378 (1999).

We therefore hold that pleadings—even in settled cases—are Judicial records subject to a presumption of public access.

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  1. When I hear about these types (seals vs unseals) of cases; my first question I ask myself, “Can I think of any rational reason why the public would benefit from having access to this public record?”

    In this type of case, *of course* there are benefits. Other potential claimants can see which school is being sued, and for what. This can help inform other victims of discrimination. And can tell a different class of viewers, “No, your own claim does not measure up to this…you probably have no case.”

    The court got this one right. But I don’t see this one as anything close to being a close call. [EV did not suggest that it had been a close call, of course.]

    1. “Additionally, the public has no valid interest in the contents of these records.”

      As soon as someone says that there is nothing here to see, then my interest is piqued, and suddenly becomes valid.

  2. Excellent. One suspects that the impetus to seal the case results from the Defendants being embarrasssed and humiliated by the charges, and that the Plaintiffs went along because, what the hell did it matter to them.

    If all of that is true, the true lesson here is that if you do not want your bad behavior to be exposed to the world, don’t engage in bad behavior.

    1. Alternatively, the Plaintiff wanted the case sealed because his/her complaint was about to be exposed as frivolous and the settlement included mooting threatened counter-claims about the plaintiff’s own wrong-doing. And the Defendants went along because closing even a frivolous case saves money. If nothing else, it gets them off the hook for onerous record retention obligations.

      I have no evidence that my hypothetical is true. I present it only to rebut the presumption that Sidney’s hypothetical is any more true. The case was settled with no finding on the merits and, to the best of my limited knowledge, the terms of the settlement were not released. We don’t know and likely will never know who was the real bad guy.

      All that said, I can’t disagree with your conclusion – being good is the best course.

      1. Good Point!

        Of course, now that the case is not being sealed we could look at the pleadings and see which party had the better case, but you know, that’s really too much work.

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