Free Speech

Ex-City Official's Attempt to Seal Lawsuit Against EEOC Rejected

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From Jean v. EEOC (S.D.N.Y.), decided by Judge Louis L. Stanton in November, but just added to Westlaw:

Plaintiff claims that Defendant EEOC "mishandled" her employment discrimination case filed in Massachusetts; she also claims that her employer, the Town of Framingham, Massachusetts, "doxed" her by publicizing sensitive documents about her.

Three days after filing her complaint in this Court, Plaintiff filed a letter-motion requesting that the "case files" in this action be placed under seal because: (1) the "EEOC case information [is] confidential and not subject to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests," and (2) her "file includes many private information about myself and others." …

Both the common law and the First Amendment protect the public's right of access to court documents. This right of access is not absolute, and "the decision as to access [to judicial records] is one best left to the sound discretion of the trial court, a discretion to be exercised in light of the relevant facts and circumstances of the particular case."

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has set forth a three-part analysis to determine whether a document relating to a lawsuit should be made available to the public. First, the Court must determine whether the document is indeed a "judicial document," to which the public has a presumptive right of access. Judicial documents are those that are "relevant to the performance of the judicial function and useful in the judicial process." Second, if the Court determines that the materials to be sealed are judicial documents, then the Court must determine the weight of the presumption of access. "[T]he weight to be given the presumption of access must be governed by the role of the material at issue in the exercise of Article III judicial power and the resultant value of such information to those monitoring the federal courts." Finally, "the court must balance competing considerations against it." "Such countervailing factors include but are not limited to the danger of impairing law enforcement or judicial efficiency and the privacy interests of those resisting disclosure." "The burden of demonstrating that a document submitted to a court should be sealed rests on the party seeking such an action."

A litigant's concern that information contained in court documents will bring her adverse publicity or negatively impact her are insufficient reasons for a court to seal documents. See, e.g., Bernsten v. O'Reilly (S.D.N.Y. 2018) (collecting cases); Doe I v. Individuals (D. Conn. 2008).

The Court concludes that the circumstances here are not sufficiently extraordinary to outweigh the presumption in favor of public access to court records. Although Plaintiff does allege that sensitive information about her was publicized by her employer, she does not describe the nature of that information in her complaint. Moreover, the attachments to her complaint—which include a generic chart and three articles from the online news site, Vox—do not contain any information specific to Plaintiff. The only document that concerns Plaintiff personally is a decision from a Massachusetts state agency (the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development) regarding her separation from her employer. But Plaintiff has redacted the personal information in this document; moreover, the facts described are only of concern to Plaintiff and her reputation. While the Court is sympathetic to Plaintiff's desire to maintain her privacy, the public's right to access court documents prevails. The Court therefore denies Plaintiff's request to seal her complaint.

The underlying dispute appears to be the one discussed in this newspaper article, which suggests that the plaintiff was the Community Development Coordinator of Framingham, Massachusetts:

"The apartheid-like and hostile environment where an entire institution used its full strength of force without any external protection for me from its abuses literally made me sick," Jean wrote in a statement she released on Tuesday.

City officials vehemently deny Jean's charge of discrimination, and members of the Finance Subcommittee say their questioning was only an attempt to understand how the block grant funds under Jean's management were administered. The city typically receives about $500,000 a year in community development block grants.

The judge also dismissed the lawsuit against the EEOC, on the grounds that the EEOC can't be sued with regard to its supposed mishandling of complaints.