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Unsuccessful Plaintiff Can't Get Case Retroactively Sealed, Despite Alleged Harm to Employment Prospects

The case had involved a doctor who had sued over his license being restricted based on allegations of mental incompetency.


From Dabiri v. Fed. of States Medical Bds. of the U.S., Inc., decided Wednesday by Judge Komitee (E.D. N.Y.) (and see the underlying 2009 opinion):

Fifteen years ago, the plaintiff, a medical doctor by trade, filed this action against Federation of States Medical Boards of the United States, Inc. ("FSMB"), a non-profit corporation representing medical boards in the United States, and General Medical Council ("GMC"), a United Kingdom-based public authority. He alleged that GMC deprived him of his right to due process by suspending his medical license without notice of hearing and then forwarding that suspension information to FSMB, which included it in reports of Plaintiff's medical disciplinary history. As alleged in the complaint and exhibits attached thereto, GMC's decision to restrict Plaintiff's license stemmed from an unfavorable determination of his mental competency, at the time, to practice medicine. Plaintiff filed all documents in this case publicly, and at no time while the case was still pending did he seek to move any under seal.

Both FSMB and GMC moved to dismiss the complaint, referring to Plaintiff's competency determination in their motion papers' summary of the relevant factual allegations. Judge Charles Sifton thereafter granted those motions on various grounds in March 2009. That opinion included a similar reference to the circumstances of Plaintiff's license suspension in its recitation of the complaint's allegations.

In 2022, plaintiff sought to seal the entire case, but the court said no:

Both the common law and the First Amendment protect the public's right to access judicial documents. The "burden of demonstrating that a document submitted to a court should be sealed rests on the party seeking such action." …

As this Court previously advised Plaintiff, "sealing an entire case file is a last resort." Plaintiff has not met his burden of justifying sealing this case in its entirety.

[S]ealing the case would result in sealing numerous judicial documents — including the complaint and its exhibits, the parties' motion to dismiss briefing, and Judge Sifton's opinion dismissing the case — to which the presumptive right of access attaches…. Dabiri "seeks to hide the entirety of the case from the public eye," so the presumption of public access "has extraordinarily substantial weight." … Judge Sifton's opinion is itself an "adjudication" — a "direct exercise[ ] of judicial power[,] the reasoning and substantive effect of which the public has an important interest in scrutinizing." Similarly, the complaint and the parties' motion to dismiss briefing, "which the Court considered and relied upon in reaching its decision[ ]," both directly affected that adjudication…. [The] presumption [of public access], moreover, "does not dissipate once the case is over," as the public simply "cannot evaluate a case that is sealed in its entirety." …

Plaintiff argues that the docket "contains and publicizes sensitive medical information." Courts have "recognized [a] privacy interest in medical records." Accordingly, "[c]ourts in this Circuit routinely seal medical records, without sealing the entire case, to protect the plaintiff's privacy interest in those records." That privacy interest in medical records, however, "is neither fundamental nor absolute," and in this case, does not overcome the strong presumption of public access to justify the full relief that Dabiri seeks.

On the one hand, Plaintiff (who was represented by counsel at the time) filed information relating to his medical history on the public docket, where it has remained accessible to the public for over thirteen years. The records' long-term availability in the public domain not only weighs against sealing them. That public availability also suggests a certain futility in doing so. "As the Second Circuit has noted, the Court has no ability to make private that which has already become public."

On the other hand, a party arguably maintains a privacy interest in his personal medical information — distinct from, for example, confidential business information — even after some degree of public disclosure. This privacy interest continues even where a plaintiff "has put his medical condition at issue" in a lawsuit and filed "medical records on the public docket."

Balancing the strong public presumption of access and the countervailing privacy interests, the Court will seal the medical records filed as an exhibit to the complaint, as well as those attached to Plaintiff's sealing requests. These records contain more detailed medical information, including examination and evaluation notes from Plaintiff's treating doctors. The Court will not seal other mentions of Plaintiff's mental competency determination contained on the docket, including those in the parties' motion papers and Judge Sifton's opinion.

Dabiri's representations that the case has caused him "lack of employment, lost jobs and wages, and career advancement" do not justify any further sealing of the record. A "possibility of future adverse impact on employment," as Plaintiff contends here, is not a "higher value sufficient to overcome the presumption of access to judicial documents."

{In his sealing request, Dabiri repeatedly refers to the medical information at issue in this case as "incorrect" and "unproven." The Court notes, in clarification, that Judge Sifton's opinion did not rule on the accuracy of this information. Instead, that opinion and the defendants' briefing in relation thereto assumed the factual allegations of Plaintiff's complaint and its exhibits to be true, as they must at the motion-to-dismiss stage. The Court likewise takes no position on the accuracy or significance of this medical information, either at the time it was filed on the docket or today.}