The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Court Orders Unsealing of Documents in Lottery Winner's Lawsuit

The lottery winner is suing an ex-girlfriend based on a non-disclosure agreement aimed at concealing his identity. (The motion to unseal, at this point, is aimed at just unsealing various sealed documents in the case, not at disclosing the parties' names.)


From Judge John Woodcock's opinion today in Doe v. Smith (Sigmund D. Schutz and Alexandra A. Harriman of PretiFlaherty and I represent the media intervenors, and my student Timon Amirani worked on our motion):

An intervening local newspaper brings a motion to unseal the sealed court docket entries in a case in which the winner of a lottery has filed suit to enforce the provisions of a non-disclosure agreement against his former partner, the mother of their minor child….

On November 14, 2023, John Doe, acting under a pseudonym, filed a civil action in this Court against Sara Smith, another pseudonym, asserting that she breached a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and caused the Plaintiff damages. The Plaintiff also sought equitable relief, including an injunction against Ms. Smith. In the complaint, Mr. Doe alleges that he was the winner of the Maine State Lottery,  that Ms. Smith is the mother of his minor daughter,  and that Ms. Smith entered into a NDA to "promote the safety and security of John Doe, [herself], and their daughter" and to avoid "the irreparable harm of allowing the media or the public in general to discover, inter alia, John Doe's identity, physical location, and assets."

Mr. Doe filed several motions to seal documents filed in this case based on his view that the revelation of his name will cause him irreparable harm, and the Court has granted those motions. Since then, the Magistrate Judge has suggested that the "Plaintiff appears to be under the misimpression that this case will be conducted entirely under seal" and reminded the Plaintiff that if he wants a document sealed, he must comply with Local Rule 7A….

The court largely granted the motion to unseal (1) various motions to seal, (2) the motion to proceed pseudonymously, (3) the nondisclosure agreement, (4) a motion for sanctions, (5) the proposed amended complaint, and some related items (except for some discovery-related matters and some modest redactions of things such as the parties' names, their child's name, and other identifying information). An excerpt:

Consistent with First Circuit precedent, the Court first asks whether the documents subject to this motion are judicial records, that is "materials on which the court relies in determining the litigants' substantive rights."  If the documents fall within the definition of judicial records to which the presumptive right of public access applies, the First Circuit directs the district courts to "carefully balance the presumptive right of access against the competing interests that are at stake in a particular case."  In doing so, the First Circuit has cautioned that "'only the most compelling reasons can justify non-disclosure of judicial records' that come within the scope of the common-law right of access." In its analysis of each document, the Court has reviewed the document with the names of the parties and the minor child redacted to determine what impact the redaction would have on unsealing….

Mr. Doe and the Maine Trust disagree about whether his winning the lottery and filing this lawsuit are newsworthy. Mr. Doe characterizes the Maine Trust's motion to unseal as reflecting its "interest in catering to the public's craving for sensationalism." Mr. Doe argues that his and his child's privacy concerns "override the public's 'morbid craving' for sensationalism." The Maine Trust responds that it "seeks to report on a matter of public interest involving governmental processes—the award of a $1.35 billion state lottery jackpot, and a lawsuit stemming from that award. This is what newspapers rightly do."

On this point, the Maine Trust has the better argument. Federal courts are not arbitrators of newsworthiness. That is an editorial, not a judicial decision. In rare cases, even if something may be of interest to the public, such as the names of sexual assault victims or juvenile offenders, the courts restrict dissemination, and many news organizations follow similar self-imposed guidelines. But those restrictions are grounded on the notion that there is a narrow band of information described in Kravetz, where privacy concerns outweigh the right of public access, not that a judge has made an editorial decision about newsworthiness….

In this order, the Court discussed the sealing of docket entries in this case and has not reached the question of the use of pseudonyms, especially if the case proceeds to trial. In 2022 and 2023, the First Circuit addressed the use of pseudonyms in litigation in three cases: Doe v. Town of Lisbon, 78 F.4th 38 (1st Cir. 2023); Doe v. Mass. Inst. of Tech., 46 F.4th 61 (1st Cir. 2022); and Doe v. Mills, 39 F.4th 20 (1st Cir. 2022). As the caselaw has repeatedly shown, even when pseudonyms are allowed during the discovery phase in the run-up to trial, there is no guarantee that the Court will sanction their use if the case goes to trial.

In 2022, the First Circuit joined its sister circuits in ruling that a district court order denying a motion to proceed by pseudonym is immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine. If the Doe holding extends beyond pseudonyms to docket entries, Mr. Doe would have a right to appeal this order and the Maine Trust might have a right to appeal the aspects of this Order unfavorable to it. To preserve what may be rights of interlocutory appeal, the Court is staying this Order to the extent it unseals currently sealed docket entries, and the Court redacts information from the Order that Mr. Doe contends should remain sealed. If Mr. Doe does not appeal, the sealed docket entries and the redactions in this Order will be unsealed and unredacted. If Mr. Doe appeals, the stay will remain effective pending further order.

The second question is the length of time this Order should remain redacted, and the docket entries sealed. As a precaution, the Court concludes that the sealed docket entries and redactions should last the thirty-day period for appeal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(a).

To address a further point, with any contested sealing order, where the party seeking the unsealing does not know the contents of the sealed matters, a court cannot publicly reveal the sealed information until the resolution of the appeal. A publicly revealed secret is no longer a secret. So, in redacting this Order and in continuing to seal the sealed docket entries, the Court acceded to Mr. Doe's more expansive view of what should be sealed, even though in this Order, the Court declined to accept Mr. Doe's view. The Court's redactions do not reflect the Court's opinion, only the Court's effort to preserve Mr. Doe's right to appeal its opinion.

In doing so, the Court is aware that the Maine Trust has a right to know the basis of its ruling so that it may effectively argue the appeal, if there is one. The Court reviewed the Order with a view toward whether it contains enough information to allow the Maine Trust to understand its bases and present its arguments on appeal. Even though the Maine Trust does not know the contents of the sealed and redacted information, there should be enough information about the Court's reasoning and order to allow its participation in any appeal….

{Although it reserves the right to do so, the Maine Trust is not now seeking the disclosure of the parties' or their minor child's names. The Court has not therefore reached the question of whether the adult parties in this case may continue to proceed under pseudonyms.}