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Doe v. Sevier County

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

March 15, 2017

JOHN DOE #1, by and through his next friend, SUSAN LEE, and JOHN DOE #2, by and through his next friend, BILLY KING, Plaintiffs,
v.
SEVIER COUNTY, TENNESSEE, SEVIER COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, and Superintendent DR. JACK PARTON in his official capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Leon Jordan United States District Judge

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Leave to Conduct the Evidentiary Hearing Under Seal [doc. 15], Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition [doc. 26], and Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition [doc. 27]. For the reasons herein, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs John Doe #1 and John Doe #2 (“John Does”) are minors and allege that they were students at Sevier County High School in Sevierville, Tennessee, but were restrained from attending the school after the State charged each of them with aggravated rape last year. [Compl., doc. 1-1, ¶¶ 10-12; Susan Lee Aff., doc. 12-1, ¶¶ 2-3; Billy King Aff., doc. 12-2, ¶¶ 2-3]. John Does allege that their counsel and the district attorney's office reached an eventual settlement agreement, under which John Does agreed never to return to Sevier County High School in exchange for dismissal of the criminal charges against them. [Compl. ¶ 12]. John Does also maintain that they have since had their juvenile records expunged. [Id. ¶ 13; Chief Deputy Clerk Letter No. 1, doc. 1-5, at 1; Chief Deputy Clerk Letter No. 2, doc. 1-6, at 1].[1] According to John Does, after procuring dismissal of the charges and expungement of the charges from their juvenile records, they attempted to re-enroll in Sevier County High School but were denied the opportunity to re-enroll. [Compl. ¶ 15].

         As a result, John Does now bring this action against Sevier County, Sevier County Board of Education, and Superintendent Dr. Jack Parton in his official capacity, alleging they violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by abridging their rights under the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. [Id. ¶ 18]. John Does have also contemporaneously filed a motion for a preliminary injunction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65, alleging that they were “in their junior years, ” “have invested themselves tremendously in the athletic program at Sevier County High School, ” and “transferring to any other school will cause irreparable harm.” [Id. ¶ 10; see Pls.' Mot. for Preliminary Inj., doc. 4, at 1]. Specifically, they claim that the “opportunities that were available to them for scholarships and to compete collegiately have been damaged and/or are rapidly diminishing” because they have been unable to re-enroll in Sevier County High School and participate in its athletic program. [Compl. ¶ 20].[2]

         Within days of the filing of this action, Defendants proceeded to the Sevier County Juvenile Court, where they obtained Orders in which that court memorialized the terms of the expunged plea agreements. [See Juvenile Records, doc. 9-1, at 1-7]. Defendants filed these Orders under temporary seal with this Court. Defendants then moved to file them under permanent seal, claiming that they “relate to and refer to” John Does' juvenile records, consist of “sensitive, confidential information related” to John Does, and “could lead to annoyance, embarrassment, and undue burden” to John Does. [Defs.' Mot. for Leave, doc. 8, at 1-2]. The Court denied the motion, determining that Defendants did not meet their burden to overcome the strong presumption favoring non-disclosure of judicial records at the federal level. [Order, doc. 17, at 1; Memo. Op., doc. 16, 1-8]. Around this time, the Court scheduled an evidentiary hearing, to afford the parties an opportunity to present evidence as to the propriety of a preliminary injunction. [Order, doc. 13, at 1; Order, doc. 29, at 1]. Defendants now petition the Court to conduct the entirety of the hearing under seal, as well as to seal the transcripts. [Motion to Seal Hr'g at 1-4]. John Does oppose the motion. [Pls.' Br. at 1-2].

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2(d), “[t]he court may order that a filing be made under seal without redaction, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 5.2(d), but the federal courts have long recognized a “strong presumption in favor of openness” as to court records, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, 710 F.2d 1165, 1179 (6th Cir. 1983). To overcome this presumption, a party seeking to seal judicial records bears a weighty burden: “Only the most compelling reasons can justify non-disclosure of judicial records.” Shane Grp., Inc. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mich., 825 F.3d 299, 305 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting In re Knoxville News-Sentinel Co., 723 F.2d 470, 476 (6th Cir. 1983)). The “demanding requirements” of this burden consist of a showing that (1) the judicial records contain information that courts will typically protect and (2) the judicial records, if not sealed, will result in “a clearly defined and serious injury.” Id. at 307-08 (quoting In re Cendant Corp., 260 F.3d 183, 194 (3d Cir. 2001)). To succeed on a request to seal a hearing, a party must meet a burden that requires this identical showing. See Cendant, 260 F.3d at 194 (“[T]he party seeking the closure of a hearing or the sealing of part of the judicial record ‘bears the burden of showing that the material is the kind of information that courts will protect' and that ‘disclosure will work a clearly defined and serious injury to the party seeking closure.'” (emphasis added) (quotation omitted)).

         Generally, “[i]n civil litigation, only trade secrets, information covered by a recognized privilege (such as the attorney-client privilege), and information required by statute to be maintained in confidence (such as the name of a minor victim of a sexual assault)” can overcome the presumption of access. Shane Grp., 825 F.3d at 308 (quoting Baxter Int'l, Inc. v. Abbott Labs., 297 F.3d 544, 546 (7th Cir. 2002)); see In re Knoxville News-Sentinel, 723 F.2d at 476 (affirming the district court's decision to seal bank records that contained financial information in part because various “statutory provisions and regulatory rules” protected that information). Even when one or more of these forms of protectable information reside in the record, however, parties are not presumptively entitled to have “broad swaths” of the record sealed; instead, they must identify, “on a document-by-document, line-by-line basis, ” which portions of the record contain “specific information . . . [that] meets the demanding requirements for a seal.” Shane Grp., 825 F.3d at 308. Also, when the public interest in a case's subject matter is great, the showing necessary to surmount the presumption of access is even more demanding. Id. at 305.

         III. Analysis

         Defendants argue that the Court should seal the evidentiary hearing and the hearing's transcripts because they intend to introduce “testimony and written documents that contains [sic] sensitive and confidential information” about John Does. [Defs.' Mot. to Seal Hr'g at 2]. Specifically, Defendants inform the Court that they have subpoenaed the attorney assigned to John Does' case at the state level-Rolfe Straussfogel-and “[i]t is anticipated” that he will testify about the expunged criminal charges, the plea agreement between John Does and the district attorney's office, and certain events relating to restraining orders against John Does. [Id.]. Defendants also inform the Court that they will introduce John Does' “academic records” and “educational records, ” as well as “evidence related to [their] enrollment.” [Id.]. In this vein, they maintain that federal law-namely the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (“FERPA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1232g- safeguards “the privacy of student educational records and requires that school systems maintain strict confidentiality of said records.” [Id.].

         A. The Charges, Plea Agreement, and Events Relating to Restraining Orders

         Defendants' argument is largely a reiteration of its previous argument for the nondisclosure of the Orders from the Sevier County Juvenile Court-an argument in which they claimed that these Orders necessitated a permanent seal because they “relate to and refer to” John Does' juvenile records, consist of “sensitive, confidential information related” to John Does, and “could lead to annoyance, embarrassment, and undue burden” to John Does. [Defs.' Mot. for Leave at 1-2]. Defendants' argument to seal the evidentiary hearing is blighted by the same shortcomings that afflicted its last argument. Defendants identify no federal statute, regulation, or privilege that requires non-disclosure of the information that it recites to the Court. In addition, Defendants describe no harm-not even in conclusory terms-that will befall John Does if the Court were to conduct a public hearing. Even John Does disagree with Defendants' assertion that they would experience harm from a public hearing, and they argue that “Defendants have not showed any particularized prejudice that would override the public's compelling interest in open proceedings.” [Pls.' Br. at 2]. The Court agrees. Defendants again fall short of meeting their burden to overcome the presumption of public access.

         B. ...


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