Free Speech

Plaintiff Can't Sue for Claimed Constitutional Violations but Keep Key Facts Sealed

"It is simply not reasonable for a plaintiff to bring a case alleging that his constitutional rights were violated by state officials and not expect the facts on which those officials based their actions to be included in the public record of a case."

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From Cullem v. Ziev, decided Wednesday by Chief Magistrate Judge M. Page Kelley (D. Mass.):

In 2013, plaintiff and his wife were engaged in divorce proceedings when his wife filed a report with the Town of Rowley Police Department alleging that plaintiff had committed certain crimes, some of them against her, including sexual assault charges. As a result of her report, plaintiff was arrested and charged with multiple crimes …. {Eventually, out of nine charges, all but one was nolle prossed [i.e., dropped by the prosecutor]; plaintiff received a continuation without a finding on the single remaining charge. The court file pertaining to that charge was sealed ….}

In this suit, plaintiff contended that his arrest, the false charges brought against him, and the publicity that followed, caused him to suffer significant personal losses. Plaintiff asserted the allegations in his wife's report to the police were not true. He claimed that Ziev, a detective for the Rowley Police Department, repeated the false allegations, made other false statements, and failed to include the fact that plaintiff and his wife were engaged in divorce proceedings, in an affidavit in support of an arrest warrant for plaintiff. Plaintiff alleged that Ziev made the false allegations "intentionally, knowingly and/or recklessly" and "without sufficient factual and/or legal basis," and then, based on the affidavit, sought criminal charges against plaintiff.

Tobin, a Rowley police officer, investigated the allegations made by plaintiff's wife. Plaintiff claimed Tobin discovered that Ziev had made false assertions that "undermined the factual/legal validity" of the crimes with which plaintiff was charged, but intentionally failed to rectify the situation. Finally, the chief of the Rowley Police Department was alleged to have released a press report that contained falsehoods. The allegations against plaintiff, including the allegedly false statements in the press report, were reported in the news media….

Many of the pleadings and orders in this case were filed under seal, as certain pleadings contained identifying information about plaintiff's wife and their children…. Plaintiff moved permanently to seal or to redact certain documents on the public docket of this case. By way of a joint statement, defendants took no position on plaintiff's motion, except with regard to defendants' motions for summary judgment and the court's order on the motions, which defendants argued should be put on the public docket….

"Courts have long recognized 'that public monitoring of the judicial system fosters the important values of quality, honesty and respect for our legal system.'" Thus there is a common-law presumption that the public ought to have access to judicial records. Documents "which play no role in the adjudication process, however, such as those used only in discovery, lie beyond reach." {There is a qualified First Amendment right of access to certain judicial proceedings and documents in addition to the common law presumption, but the court need not go down that path here, as the court finds that the common law presumption applies and essentially all the documents in this matter should be public.} …

The charge on which plaintiff received a continuation without a finding was sealed in the Newbury District Court. The Massachusetts sealing statute promotes rehabilitation and reintegration by protecting former criminal defendants "from unnecessary and overbroad dissemination of criminal record information." Section 100C of the sealing statute permits a former criminal defendant, whose criminal case resulted in a nolle prosequi or a dismissal, to seal his or her criminal record on a judge's discretionary determination that "substantial justice would best be served" by such sealing. As set out below, in its discretion this court will protect information about the sealed matter from public disclosure, because of the purpose of the sealing statute, which is to prevent unnecessary dissemination of criminal record information, and because the precise charge is not relevant to this court's reasoning on any issue….

The court acknowledges the highly personal and embarrassing nature of many of the allegations made against plaintiff by his wife in this case, allegations which plaintiff asserts are untrue. The court also is cognizant of the fact that all but one criminal charge against plaintiff were nolle prossed, and on the one remaining charge, plaintiff received a continuance without a finding, and the matter was subsequently sealed.

Nevertheless, the court is constrained by the law, which requires that materials on which a court relies in determining the litigants' substantive rights must appear on the public docket. It is simply not reasonable for a plaintiff to bring a case alleging that his constitutional rights were violated by state officials and not expect the facts on which those officials based their actions to be included in the public record of a case. Nor is it permissible for this court to rule on defendants' motion for summary judgment without delineating the facts on which it bases its decision.

The court agrees with the parties that identifying information about plaintiff's wife should be redacted from the docket, as she was an alleged victim in the criminal case, and also agrees that information about the couple's minor children should be redacted. Nevertheless, the court finds that redacting references to "Mrs. Cullem" or "the plaintiff's wife" is not necessary, as the fact that plaintiff and his wife were undergoing a divorce is integral to plaintiff's claims, and it is obvious to all that the couple was married. By the same token, facts concerning what the children allegedly said to officials and what actions plaintiff allegedly took in the presence of his children are also central to the court's adjudication of this case, and cannot be hidden from the public's view….