The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From Delplanche v. Window Products, Inc., decided yesterday by Judge Ann Aiken (D. Or.):
Plaintiff worked for defendants from November 2014 until he was terminated on August 19, 2015. On December 14. 2016, he filed this action, asserting unlawful termination under the Equal Pay Act, the Fair Labors Standards Act, and various state laws. On March 14, 2018, the parties filed a Stipulated Judgment of Dismissal, which stipulated that "this case, having been compromised and fully settled, be dismissed with prejudice and without costs or attorneys' fees to any party" ….
On April 13, 2021, plaintiff filed this motion. In it, he alleges that, after the case settled "several third-party entities pulled the case filing and all supporting documents with confidential salary information of the Plaintiff" from the District of Oregon's "records database and the case file was then posted all over internet search engines," for prospective employers to find. As a result, prospective employers have asked plaintiff about the case during several job interviews. But plaintiff cannot "disclose the terms and conditions of [his] discharge without violating the terms and conditions of the  settlement agreement."
Plaintiff identified at least seven third parties that "posted the case file to … multiple search engines." When he asked them to remove the postings, six of the parties agreed to do so. One, Leagle.com, refused to remove the postings without a court order. Plaintiff also contacted Google, Bing, and Yahoo, to see if they would agree to remove Leagle.com's postings, but the search engines also refused to do so without a court order.
Plaintiff alleges that the presence of case information on the internet, coupled with his obligations under the settlement agreement has "hindered [his] ability to be gainfully employed" and "is affecting [his] ability to provide for his family at a financial setback of over several hundred thousand dollars," which "violates [his] civil liberties to due process." He also asserts that the postings violate his rights to privacy under the Federal Privacy Act. Plaintiff asks the Court to "seal this case and all of its filings and documents from [the] public record" and to order third parties, including but not limited to 11 parties listed by plaintiff, to "remove the case filing" currently posted on the internet and "cease and desist from any future internet postings."
No, said the court:
Courts have long recognized a "general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents." This right is justified by the interest of citizens in "keep[ing] a watchful eye on the workings of public agencies." Unless a particular court record is one "traditionally kept secret," [such as grand jury transcripts and warrant materials in the midst of a pre-indictment investigation,] a "strong presumption in favor of access" is the starting point.
When a party seeks to seal an entire case file, as plaintiff does here, courts have required that party to meet the high threshold of showing that "compelling reasons" support the need for secrecy…. In general, "compelling reasons" sufficient to outweigh the public's interest in disclosure and justify sealing records exist when such "court files might have become a vehicle for improper purposes," such as the use of records to gratify private spite, promote public scandal, circulate libelous statements, or release trade secrets. "The mere fact that the production of records may lead to a litigant's embarrassment, incrimination, or exposure to further litigation will not, without more, compel the court to seal its records."
Plaintiff's request to seal this entire case along with all associated electronic records because potential employers' knowledge of this lawsuit has caused them to ask difficult questions during interviews and made it hard for him to find work does not meet the "compelling reasons" standard. And plaintiff fails to cite any legal authority to suggest that it does.
Plaintiff suggests that third parties who posted records from this case on the internet violated his rights under the Federal Privacy Act …. Under the Act, "[n]o agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains. 5 U.S.C. § 522a(b). As its express terms indicate, the Act does not regulate the disclosure of records by private individuals or this Court—it applies only to the release of information by federal agencies.