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Company Doe v. Public Citizen

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Documents
  • Date of Decision
    April 16, 2014
  • Outcome
    Remanded for Decision in Accordance with Ruling, Access to Information Granted, Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional
  • Case Number
    749 F.3d 246
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Administrative Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Access to Public Information
  • Tags
    Court Records

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

Because under the First Amendment the public and the press have a strong presumption right of access to judicial records filed in criminal and civil proceedings, the district court erred in granting a company’s request to seal the bulk of the court records and abused its discretion in allowing the company to litigate under a pseudonym.


Facts

The plaintiff, known to the public as “Company Doe”, filed suit under the Administrative Procedure Act to enjoin a federal agency, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, from publishing in its online, publicly accessible database a report pertaining to the safety of a product manufactured and sold by Company Doe. Jointly with its complaint, Company Doe filed a motion to litigate the case under seal and to proceed under a pseudonym. The company argued that disclosure of its identity as well as any facts that would enable the public to link its product to the harm alleged in the report would have the same effect as disclosure via the federal agency’s database.

The Commission, and three consumer advocacy groups that were not parties to the litigation, Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers’ Union (hereinafter “Public Citizen”), objected the motion to seal. Public Citizen also filed a motion to unseal. The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled in favor of Company Doe, finding that the information contained in the report was materially inaccurate, and permanently enjoined the Commission from publishing the report in its online database. The court also granted Company Doe’s motion to seal and to use a pseudonym. As a result, Public Citizen sought appellate review of the district court’s sealing and pseudonymity rulings.

Public Citizen argued that the First Amendment right of access applies to all of the documents sealed by the district court and that the court erred in determining that Company Doe demonstrated a compelling interest that justified sealing the records. Company Doe countered that the First Amendment is inapplicable to the materials filed before the court and, even if it does extend to some of the documents, it has a compelling interest sufficient to defeat the First Amendment presumptive right of access.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the district court’s sealing order violated the public’s right of access under the First Amendment and that the court abused its discretion in allowing Company Doe to proceed under a pseudonym. Therefore, it reversed the district court’s sealing and pseudonymity orders and instructed the district court to unseal the case in its entirety.

 


Decision Overview

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recognized that the public and press have a right of access to judicial documents and records filed in civil and criminal proceedings under the First Amendment and common law, and that this right of public access “may be abrogated only in unusual circumstances.”  The Fourth Circuit did not find any unusual circumstance in this case and concluded that the public enjoys a qualified right of access under the First Amendment to the district court’s opinion, the materials the district court relied upon its adjudication, and the docket sheet.

The Court found no credible evidence to support Company Doe’s fear that disclosure of the challenged report and the facts of the case would subject it to reputational or economic injury, particularly in light of the fact that the district court’s ruled in favor of Company Doe vindicated the company and its product. The court observed that “an unsupported claim of reputational harm falls short of a compelling interest sufficient to overcome the strong First Amendment presumptive right of public access” and determined that the district court erred in concluding otherwise to justify sealing the court records.

For the Court, “the sealed documents in this case implicate public concerns that are at the core of the interests protected by the right of access” and “the interest is at its apex when the government is a party to the litigation.” The burden rested with Company Doe to articulate a compelling interest that outweighs the strong presumption of public access and the Fourth Circuit found that “measured against the heightened public interests presented, Company Doe failed to demonstrate any interest sufficient to defeat the public’s First Amendment right of access and to justify continued sealing. As a result, the Court reversed the district court’s sealing order and instructed it to unseal the case in its entirety. The Court emphasized that the public and press generally have a contemporaneous right of access to court documents and proceedings when the right applies, and that a district court therefore must act on a sealing request as expeditiously as possible.

The Fourth Circuit recognized that in exceptional circumstances, compelling concerns relating to personal privacy or confidentiality may warrant some degree of anonymity in judicial proceedings, but that proceeding by pseudonym is a “rare dispensation.”  The Court held that when a party seeks to litigate under a pseudonym, a district court has an independent obligation to ensure that extraordinary circumstances support such a request by balancing the party’s stated interest in anonymity against the public’s interest in openness and any prejudice that anonymity would pose to the opposing party. Because Company Doe failed to identify any exceptional circumstances that justify the use of a pseudonym, the Court concluded that the district court abused its discretion in permitting Company Doe to litigate under a pseudonym.

 


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

By sealing the bulk of the court records during the pendency of the litigation, the district court effectively shut out the public and the press from exercising their constitutional and common law right of access to public judicial proceedings. Absent a compelling interest in secrecy, a district court’s order to seal the court records violate the public right’s to access to those records and judicial proceedings under the First Amendment, and abused its discretion in allowing the plaintiff to to proceed litigating using a pseudonym.

If a litigant recurs to a court seeking relief, absent a compelling interest in keeping the proceedings secret, she or he must understand that judicial transparency and access to court records and proceedings are guaranteed by the First Amendment.

 

 

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

If a litigant recurs to a court seeking relief, absent a compelling interest in keeping the proceedings secret, she or he must understand that judicial transparency and access to court records and proceedings are guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:


Amicus Briefs and Other Legal Authorities

  • Brief of Media Organizations as Amici Curiae In Support of Parties-In-Interest-Appellants and Reversal

    http://www.rcfp.org/sites/default/files/docs/20140417_163327_media_amicus_public_citizen_case.pdf

  • Reports, Analysis, and News Articles:


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