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"Protection of a Defendant's Reputation Is Not a Sufficient Reason to Prevent Public Access to the Docket"


From Sela v. Blanshay, decided last week by Justice Arlene Bluth of the New York trial court:

This action arises out of an unpaid debt. Plaintiff and defendant … allegedly entered into a loan agreement for an unspecified amount that went unpaid purportedly due to a debilitating illness…. [Defendant's son] allegedly took over her business and attempted to settle the remaining $30,000 debt with plaintiff. On April 29, 2021, plaintiff filed this motion for summary judgment in lieu of a complaint against defendants based upon defendants' failure to comply with the terms of a loan.

The suit was dismissed by this Court on May 21, 2021 because no affidavit of service was submitted. A separate action was subsequently commenced against all the defendants except Mr. Blanshay.

Mr. Blanshay brings this motion to seal stating he has no affiliation with his mother's jewelry company and has never signed any documents implicating him in this loan agreement. Mr. Blanshay contends that this dismissed action interferes with his ability to conduct business as it defames his name and credibility. He insists the dispute does not involve him. Mr. Blanshay never moved to dismiss the case against him on the merits (although there was no proof that he was ever served before it was dismissed, either).

In response, plaintiff claims that defendant has no basis for his motion to seal. Plaintiff contends the First Department's approach to sealing documents is strict and Mr. Blanshay has not met his burden because embarrassment or damage to reputation does not constitute good cause to seal court records. Plaintiff contends Mr. Blanshay emailed them to settle the loan and represents himself to the public as an executive of his mother's jewelry business, thus implicating him in the loan repayment. Additionally, plaintiff contends that the dismissal of this case does not entitle Mr. Blanshay to a sealing of the records….

"Under New York law, there is a broad presumption that the public is entitled to access to judicial proceedings and court records. This State has long recognized that civil actions and proceedings should be open to the public in order to ensure that they are conducted efficiently, honestly, and fairly." "Confidentiality is clearly the exception, not the rule and the party seeking to seal court records has the burden to demonstrate compelling circumstances to justify restricting public access."

The desire to keep documents confidential for protection of a defendant's reputation is not a sufficient reason to prevent public access to the docket. This action does not concern issues like trade secrets or proprietary information that supports a motion to seal. Moreover, the First Department has found that dismissal of an action does not support a motion to seal.

Based on this law, there is no reason to seal this case. People and entities who have no liability are sued all the time—prior owners of property where there has been an accident, utility companies which worked near an accident location years ago, hospital employees who had no contact with the patient—and files are not sealed for that purpose. Being sued is merely being accused of some sort of wrongdoing, it is not proof of wrongdoing. A mere allegation contained in a court filing in a case which was dismissed before any finding of liability were made is not a basis to seal a docket. The public has a right to know what goes on in the courts of this State.