Clark v. Bamberger et al

Filing 126

OPINION AND ORDER directing as follows: (1) the 115 Joint MOTION to Seal Fairness Hearing Proceedings is denied, with the exception of two documents; (2) the 117 MOTION to approve settlement and distribution of settlement proceeds and exhibits to the motion are unsealed, except for Exhibits 4 and 5 ( 117 -4 and 117 -5), which shall remain sealed; (3) the 119 report of the guardian ad litem is unselaed. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 3/28/2016. (djy, )

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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, SOUTHERN DIVISION JENNIFER CLARK, as ) personal representative of ) the estate of Jeremy ) Clark, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) v. ) ) JOEY BAMBERGER, et al., ) ) Defendants. ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:12cv1122-MHT (WO) OPINION AND ORDER Plaintiff Jennifer Clark, as personal representative of the estate of her deceased husband Jeremy Clark, filed this wrongful-death suit against defendants Joey Rolls-Royce Bamberger, Communications Army Corporation Fleet Corporation. and Support, its LLC, Jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity). employee and is L-3 proper Pending before the court is the parties’ joint motion to seal the fairness hearing proceedings, which requests sealing of “all documents, transcripts and other records relating to the fairness hearing proceeding.” no. 115) at 1. Motion to Seal (doc. For the reasons discussed below, the motion to seal will be denied, with the exception of two documents. I. BACKGROUND This case arises out of a tragic accident in which Jeremy Clark, a civilian helicopter-training pilot employed by the Army, was killed when the helicopter he was piloting crashed during a training exercise at Fort Rucker, Alabama. wrongful-death Jennifer suit Rolls-Royce and troubleshoot the Clark contending Bamberger engine that did issue, brought defendants not and this effectively were therefore liable for the crash, and that L-3 Communications and Army Fleet Support, which played a role in maintaining the aircraft, also bore responsibility. The asserted summary defendants numerous judgment denied liability defenses, and to and exclude 2 for filed the crash, motions plaintiff’s for expert testimony. Plaintiff defendants. children, reached settlements with the Because decedent was survived by two minor who stand to inherit a portion of the settlements under Alabama law, the parties moved for appointment of a guardian ad litem for the children and for the court to hold a fairness hearing and approve the settlement. They also filed the motion, now before the court, to seal the fairness hearing and all related documents. II. DISCUSSION A. Applicable Law “In most cases when the parties settle, the court does not examine settlements are or purely approve their private agreements; contracts. the However, when, as here, a settlement is approved by a court, the settlement becomes part of the judicial record.” Stalnaker v. Novar Corp., 293 F. Supp. 2d 1260, 1263 (M.D. Ala. 2003) (citations omitted). 3 Most documents filed in court are subject to the common-law right of access. “The operations of the courts and the judicial conduct of judges are matters of utmost public concern, ... and [t]he common-law right of access to judicial proceedings, an essential component of our system of justice, is instrumental in securing the integrity of the process.” Romero v. Drummond Co., 480 F.3d 1234, 1245 (11th Cir. 2007). (internal “Beyond citations and establishing criminal and quotation a civil marks general actions omitted). presumption should be that conducted publicly, the common-law right of access includes the right to inspect documents.” and copy Chicago public Tribune records Co. and v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1311 (11th Cir. 2001) (citing Nixon v. Warner Comm., Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978)). the court decisions,’ to invoke whether “A motion that is ‘presented to its or powers not or affect its characterized as dispositive, is subject to the public right of access,” 4 Romero, 480 F.3d at 1246 (citations omitted), as is any “[m]aterial filed in connection with any substantive pretrial motion, unrelated to discovery,” id. at 1245 (citations omitted). The public’s common-law right of access is not absolute, however, and “may be overcome by a showing of good cause.” Id. “[W]hether good cause exists ... is ... decided by the nature and character of the information in question.” Id. at 1246 (quoting Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1315). whether to seal documents must Courts deciding balance “the public interest in accessing court documents against a party’s interest in keeping the information confidential.” Id. In balancing these interests, “courts consider, among other factors, whether allowing access would impair court functions or harm legitimate privacy interests, the degree of and likelihood of injury if made public, the reliability of the information, whether there will be an opportunity to respond to the information, whether the information concerns public officials or 5 public concerns, and the availability of a less onerous alternative to sealing the documents.” Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at Id.; see also 1311 (“[A] judge's exercise of discretion in deciding whether to release judicial records should be informed by a sensitive appreciation of the circumstances that led to ... [the] production [of the particular document in question].” (citation omitted)). In addition to the common-law right of access, the First Amendment provides the press and public a limited right of access to certain court proceedings. It is unclear whether there is a First Amendment right of access to the documents and hearing at issue here. Wilson v. (11th Cir. Am. Motors 1985) constitutional right Corp., 759 (discussing of access F.2d 1568, uncertain to civil See 1569-70 status trials of and concluding that “the question of whether or not there is a constitutional right of access to civil trials has not been answered by our court”); Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1310 (“The constitutional right of access has a 6 more limited application in the civil context than it does in the criminal. ... Nonetheless, this court has extended access the to release or scope include of the civil actions incarceration confinement.”) constitutional of (citations right pertaining prisoners omitted)). to and of the their Were a constitutional right of access to apply, the parties would have to show that sealing is “necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose” and that less intrusive alternatives were considered; further, the court would need to ensure narrowly drawn. that the restriction on access was Newman v. Graddick, 696 F.2d 796, 802 (11th Cir. 1983) (citations omitted). As the parties here cannot meet even the lesser ‘good cause’ showing to overcome the common-law right of access, the court need not decide what the First Amendment requires here. B. Appropriateness of Sealing The parties have moved to seal all documents, transcripts, and other records related to the fairness 7 hearing. motion This to request presumably approve agreement settlement the and would settlement documents cover and the attached related to the formation of trusts for the minor beneficiaries; the guardian ad litem’s report; the transcript of the fairness hearing; the order on the motion to approve the settlement agreement; and, arguably, the motion to seal and this order on the motion to seal. The parties do not dispute that the documents at issue here access. are subject However, they to the contend common-law that these right of documents contain “sensitive information relating to the privacy interests” of the minors, the “could cause harm to the minors.” disclosure of which Joint Motion to Seal Fairness Hearing Proceedings (doc. no. 115), at 1, 2. Protecting the privacy of minors is undoubtedly an important concern. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure recognize the importance of protecting the privacy interests of minors by requiring that minors be referred to by only their initials in court filings. 8 Fed. R. Civ. P. 5.2(a)(3). protection, documents, courts Going beyond this level of have including sealed settlements, proceedings and litigation that in exposes sensitive information about a child that could harm the child’s future educational or employment prospects or that could cause the child great trauma or embarrassment. For example, in a personal-injury case stemming from an suffered injuries aviation and incident emotional in which trauma, minors the court sealed the settlement agreement because “[t]he dollar amount of each minor's settlement implies the relative severity and expected emotional and mental duration injuries (or of each lack minor's thereof) in comparison to the other family members, and therefore may expose the minors to potential public ridicule and embarrassment in the community and could later make it more difficult for them to obtain employment.” Mears v. Atl. Se. Airlines, Inc., No. 5:12-CV-613-F, 2014 WL 5018907, at *2 (E.D.N.C. Oct. 7, 2014) (Fox, J.). Similarly, courts have sealed settlement agreements and 9 other and documents other medical See, and cases where information e.g., proceedings special-education confidential about Wittenberg in v. minors educational would be and exposed. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Cnty. Bd. of Educ., CIV.A.1:05CV00818, 2009 WL 1684585, at *2–3 (M.D.N.C. June 16, 2009) (Osteen, J.) (granting motion to seal settlement agreement in part to protect the confidential educational records of minor student in special-education case); see also Webster Groves Sch. Dist. v. Pulitzer Pub. Co., 898 F.2d 1371, 1374-77 (8th Cir. 1990) (denying press access to proceedings and court file where doing so would expose child’s allegedly criminal behavior, mental-health status, and disability-related information). In this case, the settlement and other documents would not expose confidential educational, medical, or mental-health information about the minor children, and the financial information in the settlement would expose nothing about the children other than the amount of money they were to receive and that a wrongful-death 10 case stemming settled. from The information the parties related argue to offer injury, any or type emotional, or other. their the father disclosure settlement could was of cause However, they do not explain evidence what of that the injury to the children. or death showing of how injury it they could cause fear--physical, As a result, the court has no information upon which to assess “the degree of and likelihood of injury if made public.” at 1246. Further, Romero, 480 F.3d “‘[s]tereotyped and conclusory statements’ do not establish good cause” for denying public access to court documents. Id. (citation omitted); see also Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. overcome the 1, 15 (1986) (“right by ... conclusory parties have not made of access assertion”)). a sufficient cannot be Therefore, showing to overcome the common-law right of access. Nor do other factors weigh in favor of sealing the documents. The parties argue that there is no less onerous alternative to sealing the documents, because 11 the names of the parents in the litigation make the children However, easily as identifiable parties the by not have their shown initials. that the documents would expose anything confidential under law or embarrassing about the children, the court finds the use of initials sufficient to protect the children’s privacy in this circumstance. The parties also argue that this lawsuit is not a matter of public concern as it is between two private parties, and does not involve a public official. However, because this lawsuit involves the crash of a U.S. Army helicopter at an Army base and the alleged negligence of government contractors paid with public money, this lawsuit does to some extent involve a matter of public concern. Finally, Rolls-Royce argues that (1) the parties agreed that the case would be sealed and (2) it would not have settled for the same amount of money had it not believed that the case would be sealed. The plaintiff disputes that the sealing of the case was a condition of the settlement; plaintiff’s position is 12 supported by the lack of any reference in the parties’ written agreement to the settlement being conditioned on sealing. In any case, even if the parties had so agreed, that reason would not be sufficient to overcome the public’s right of access. to encourage settlement, The court certainly wishes recognizes that settlements are critical to the functioning of the federal courts, and knows that many defendants--and plaintiffs--value confidentiality in settlements. Further, one could argue that allowing access to the settlement in this case could discourage Eleventh impair future Circuit court functions settlements. has made clear in that it might Nevertheless, that the the parties’ agreement to seal a settlement or other document is not a relevant seal. consideration in the decision whether to As the appeals court observed in Wilson v. Am. Motors Corp., 759 F.2d 1568, 1571 n.4 (11th Cir. 1985), “There is no question that courts should encourage settlements. However, the payment of money to an injured party is simply not “a compelling governmental interest” legally 13 recognizable or even entitled to consideration in deciding whether or not to seal a record. We feel certain that many parties to lawsuits would be willing to bargain (with the adverse party and the court) for the sealing of records after listening to or observing damaging testimony and evidence. Such suppression of public records cannot be authorized.” For these reasons, the motion to seal denied, with the exception of two documents. documents attached to the motion to will be The trust approve the settlement agreement, which contain the minors’ full names, shall remain sealed, as they were not filed in compliance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2(a)(3). *** Accordingly, it is ORDERED as follows: (1) The proceedings joint (doc. motion no. to 115) exception of two documents. 14 seal is fairness denied, hearing with the (2) The motion to approve settlement and distribution of settlement proceeds (doc. no. 117) and exhibits to the motion are unsealed, except for Exhibits 4 and 5 (doc. nos. 117-4 and 117-5), which shall remain sealed. (3) The report of the guardian ad litem (doc. no. 119) is unsealed. DONE, this the 28th day of March, 2016. /s/ Myron H. Thompson UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

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