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Hensley v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville

April 13, 2017

JAMES EARL HENSLEY
v.
WAL-MART STORES EAST, LP and GRAYHAWK LEASING, INC.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING SEALING CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION

          CLIFTON L. CORKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This Memorandum and Order Regarding Sealing Confidential Information enunciates the specific standards that must be met and the procedures that must be followed in order to file anything in the Court record under seal.

         Standard Required to File Information Under Seal

         The Court regularly signs agreed protective orders which permit the parties to designate the discovery they wish to keep confidential among themselves. The Court has just approved and entered such an order in this case. However, to avoid confusion later, the parties are reminded that they may not summarily agree that they will file information under seal or in redacted form in the court record simply because it is designated as confidential under the protective order.

         This Court cannot place under seal any documents filed with the Court absent good cause to do so because the public has a paramount interest in access to all court documents. Proctor & Gamble Co. v. Bankers Trust Co., 78 F.3d 219, 227 (6th Cir. 1996); Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, 710 F.2d 1165, 1177-1181 (6th Cir. 1983). In addition, E.D.TN. LR 26.4 flatly prohibits filing any document under seal without prior showing, to the satisfaction of the Court, of good cause. Filing a motion to seal which simply states that the parties have designated the document as confidential will not be sufficient to place the document or information under seal.

         In Proctor & Gamble Co. v. Bankers Trust Co., 78 F.3d 219, 227 (6th Cir. 1996), the Sixth Circuit directed that no court papers may be placed under seal absent “good cause shown.” Id. at 227. The Court then referred to its earlier decision of Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, 710 F.2d 1165, 1177-1181 (6th Cir. 1983) as the decision in which “the principles” of sealing court papers for good cause shown is “so painstakingly discussed.” Id. at 227.

         In Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, the Sixth Circuit began its discussion of when court papers could be placed under seal by recognizing the long-standing tradition of public access to court proceedings in this country. The Court articulated three reasons for this right of public access. First, “public trials play an important role as outlets for community concern, hostility and emotions. When judicial decisions are known to be just and when the legal system is moving to vindicate societal wrongs, members of the community are less likely to act as self-appointed law enforcers or vigilantes.” Id. at 1178 (internal citations omitted). Second, “public access provides a check on the courts. Judges know that they will continue to be held responsible by the public for their rulings. Without access to the proceedings, the public cannot analyze and critique the reasoning of the court....One of the ways we minimize judicial error and misconduct is through public scrutiny and discussion.” Id. Third, “open trials promote true and accurate fact finding.” Id. (external citation omitted.)

         “Once documents are filed with the Court, there is a ‘strong presumption that they should be open to the public.'” In re Southeastern Milk Antitrust Litigation, 666 F.Supp.2d 908, 915 (E.D. Tenn. 2009). In order to file documents under seal in the court record, the moving party must show compelling reasons to do so. Id. (citing Meyer Goldberg, Inc. v. Fisher Foods, Inc., 823 F.2d 159, 163 (6th Cir. 1987). Also, “a court's obligation to explain the basis for sealing court records is independent of whether anyone objects to it.” Shane Group, Inc. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, 825 F.3d 299, 305 (6th Cir. 2016). See also, In re The Knoxville News- Sentinel Co., Inc., 723 F.2d 470, 476 (6th Cir.1983) (“Only the most compelling reasons can justify non-disclosure of judicial records.”) (citing Brown & Williamson, 710 F.2d at 1179-80.)

         The right of access is not absolute, however. Id. at 1179. There are two categories of exceptions to the right of public access. The first category is the need to keep dignity and order in the courtroom. In such an instance, the legitimate societal interest in protecting the adjudicatory process from disruption outweighs the interest of unfettered public access to the proceedings. Id. The second category consists of restrictions based on the content of the information to be disclosed to the public. Id. Certain content-based exceptions outweigh the right to public access. Some of these exceptions include:

1) a defendant's right to a fair trial,
2) trade secrets,
3) national security, and
4) certain privacy rights of participants and ...

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