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Patent Law Opinion Can't Be Sealed to Avoid Hurting Plaintiff's Future Similar Lawsuits

[UPDATE: I've added comments from plaintiff's lawyer.]


From Araujo v. E. Mishan & Sons, Inc., decided Thursday by Judge John Cronan (S.D.N.Y.):

Plaintiff William Araujo filed a motion to seal the Court's Opinion and Order construing two terms in one of the claims of his patent….

Under "the First Amendment and the common law," the public has a "presumption of access to judicial records." The Second Circuit has broadly defined a "judicial document" as an "item that is relevant to the performance of the judicial function and useful in the judicial process." A document is relevant to the performance of the judicial function "if it would reasonably have the tendency to influence a district court's ruling on a motion or in the exercise of its supervisory powers." The public has a presumption of access to these documents "so that the federal courts have a measure of accountability and so that the public may have confidence in the administration of justice." …

Plaintiff concedes that the Opinion is a judicial document, as it obviously is…. [A] strong presumption of public access attaches to the Opinion.

Plaintiff argues that presumption is weak because this case is a "civil controversy between private individuals" which has not sparked "interest on the part of news media." But this is also true of most civil litigation cases. The fact that Plaintiff's case has not received significant media attention does not detract from the Opinion's role in the Court's exercise of its Article III power. Further, there may be a public interest in the Opinion as its discussion of the claim construction legal standard and subsequent analysis could serve as helpful authority for litigants and judges in future cases….

Plaintiff has failed to meet his burden "to articulate a compelling countervailing rationale" for sealing the Opinion "against this strong presumption of public access." Plaintiff argues that he "should not be hampered by the record created in this Court" should he choose to file new infringement actions against other defendants, and expresses concern that the Opinion could "foreclose[ ]" the possibility of settlement "should the new defendants be [able to] access" it. But "[t]he natural desire of parties to shield prejudicial information contained in judicial records cannot be accommodated by courts without seriously undermining the tradition of an open judicial system." …

The opinion that plaintiff sought interpreted the claims in plaintiff's patent for "exercise devices intended to strengthen abdominal muscles by enabling a technique that resembles a reverse sit-up." Here's an excerpt from the plaintiff's argument, which the court rejected:

Following a Markman [patent claim construction] hearing, the Court rendered a Claim Construction Opinion and Order on June 29, 2022 under Document No. 93…. In light of that ruling, plaintiff William Araujo abandoned the pursuit of his Complaint…. [But] Plaintiff still has the option to pursue infringement actions against other defendants before the term of his patent expires ….

In any new infringement action plaintiff may file[,] the possibility of a settlement short of a Markman hearing is foreclosed should the new defendants be to able access Document No. 93. Needless to say settlement of litigation is a high priority for all Courts.

In his earlier case that was filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, plaintiff was able to receive a settlement before a Markman hearing. This will assuredly not happen again if Document No. 93 is not sealed. Plaintiff will then be faced with the unsavory options of collaterally attacking Document No. 93 or seeking its  collateral review on appeal.

Such choices will place unnecessary burdens on plaintiff, his adversaries and the District and Court of Appeals. It will not serve the best interests of all concerned….

Unsurprisingly, the court didn't view this as a sufficient basis for concealing its opinion from the public.

UPDATE: I had reached out to plaintiff's lawyer (Amirali Haidri) for comments, and he was kind enough to respond:

In a nutshell, we had encountered a Motion to Dismiss that was denied by Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn.  Her Honor also held that photographs were not necessary in our pleadings and oppositions.  This ruling was precedential and received a published commentary from members of the bar.

The Markman ruling by U.S.D.J. John P. Cronan was therefore a surprise.  The client did not wish to pursue the matter further including an appeal.

Accordingly, we filed a motion to seal to ensure that the Markman ruling would not haunt us in future litigation.  We may now have to collaterally attack it in future litigation which is not the best course of action.

At page 3 of the Order, Judge Cronan writes that his "…analysis could serve as helpful legal authority for litigants and judges in future cases."

While true, I question what mindset this sentence represents.

I followed up with,

[Y]ou mention that the Markman ruling was a surprise—I assume that's as to the substance of the ruling, yes?  I take it that it wasn't a surprise that the court would make some ruling as to claim construction, given the February 2022 Markman hearing, right?

More broadly, generally speaking court decisions are public, precisely so the public does understand what judges are doing (whether correctly or not); and, as I understand it, the possible collateral estoppel consequences of a decision—or even just its value as persuasive precedent—are viewed as positive features of our legal system, rather than defects.  Am I missing something here?

Mr. Haidri in turn responded:

The Markman ruling was a surprise as we believed that we were on a sound footing under CAFC precedents and the MPEP.

We sought to seal the ruling because the client did not authorize an appeal.

I agree that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done to ensure institutional integrity.  Collateral estoppel is a form of stare decisis and is in the interests of judicial economy.  There is precedential value to rulings as well, as concerns other parties.

I much appreciate his willingness to comment on the matter, and I'm glad to have had a chance to pass along his comments to our readers.