FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION et al v. SYSCO CORPORATION et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER re: 60 Defendants' Motion to Make Public Declarant Names and Affiliations. Signed by Judge Amit P. Mehta on 03/18/2015. (lcapm3)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Federal Trade Commission, et al.,
Sysco Corporation, et al.,
Civil No. 1:15-cv-00256 (APM)
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiffs—the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and various states—have filed over
90 declarations of customers, distributors, and other participants in the broadline food industry as
exhibits to their preliminary injunction motion filed on February 20, 2015.1 The content of these
declarations, as well as the names and affiliations of the third parties who provided them, have
been treated as “Confidential Material” under a Protective Order first entered on February 23,
2015, and subsequently modified on March 13, 2015. See Defs.’ Mem., ECF No. 61 at 1;
Protective Orders, ECF No. 25 and ECF No. 87. Under the operative Protective Order, the only
employees at Defendants Sysco Corp., USF Holding Corp., and US Foods, Inc., who may access
any part of the declarations, including the identities of the declarants, are three members of their
respective in-house legal teams. See ECF No. 87.
On March 6, 2015, Defendants filed a “Motion to Make Public Declarant Names and
Affiliations.” ECF No. 60. Though couched in terms of “public” disclosure, what Defendants
principally seek is disclosure of the declarants’ identities to “Sysco and US Foods employees who
The court has not independently verified the number of declarations filed. Ninety-two is the number cited by
Defendants; Plaintiffs have not disputed that number.
interact with the declarant-customers and compete against the declarant-competitors on a day-today basis in the real world” in order to “test the witnesses’ statements against Sysco and US
Foods.” Defs.’ Mem. at 3. Plaintiffs oppose the motion, but acknowledge that the identities of the
declarants may become public at a subsequent stage in the proceedings, such as during the
preliminary injunction hearing or in the court’s decision. Pls.’ Opp’n Mem., ECF No. 66 at 5, n.3.
Plaintiffs’ objection thus pertains not to whether the declarants’ identities should be disclosed at
all, but rather to disclosing those identities at this stage to Defendants. Id. (“Before the hearing
and decision phases, however, it is unnecessary to release publicly the names of all declarants.”)
(citations omitted). After considering the parties’ arguments, the court concludes that Defendants
shall be granted the relief they seek: to disclose the declarants’ identities to their employees strictly
for the purpose of preparing their defense. Defendants shall continue to be bound by the Protective
Order’s restriction against disclosing any content of the declarations that is designated
“Confidential Material.” The court reserves for another day the broader question whether the
identities of the declarants should be made public.
Given the narrowed scope of inquiry, the applicable authorities are not those governing
public disclosure, but rather those addressing the circumstances in which discovery material may
be withheld from a party to a case. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for liberal
discovery. Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 34 (1984). The Rules “do not differentiate
between information that is private or intimate and that to which no privacy interests attach. . . .
Thus, the Rules often allow extensive intrusion into the affairs of both litigants and third parties.”
Id. at 30 (emphasis added). But “[l]iberal discovery is provided for the sole purpose of assisting
in the preparation and trial . . . of litigated disputes.” Id. at 34. Because of the prospect for abuse,
“it is necessary for the trial court to have the authority to issue protective orders conferred by
Rule 26(c).” Id.
Rule 26(c) provides that for “good cause” a court may “issue an order to protect a party or
person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense.” Fed. R. Civ.
P. 26(c)(1). Though a party seeking a protective order need not make a “concrete factual showing,”
EEOC v. Nat’l Children’s Ctr., Inc., 98 F.3d 1406, 1411 (D.C. Cir. 1996), it must do more than
offer “conclusory or speculative statements about the need for a protective order and the harm
which will be suffered without one,” Huthnance v. District of Columbia, 255 F.R.D. 285, 296
(D.D.C. 2008) (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Accordingly, courts apply
a balancing test, weighing the movant’s proffer of harm against the adversary’s significant interest
in preparing for trial.” Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).2
Plaintiffs argue that the declarants’ identities should remain confidential for two main
reasons. First, if the declarants’ identities were revealed, they might face retaliation from
Defendants. Pls.’ Opp’n Mem. at 1. Second, disclosure would have a “chilling effect” on
witnesses whose cooperation the FTC may seek in future investigations. Id. at 5. The court finds
that these concerns are unsubstantiated and are outweighed by Defendants’ substantial interest in
learning the identities of the declarants.
Plaintiffs argue that, because there is an existing protective order, Defendants have the burden of showing “good
cause” to modify it, as opposed to Plaintiffs bearing the burden of showing “good cause” for the restriction under Rule
26(c). Pls.’ Opp’n Mem. at 2 (quoting Infineon Tech. AG v. Green Power Tech. Ltd., 247 F.R.D. 1 (D.D.C. 2005)).
The court is skeptical that Defendants bear the burden in the present circumstances. It is true that there is an existing
protective order that Defendants are seeking to modify. However, unlike a suit such as Infineon between private actors
who presumably conducted an arms-length negotiation over the terms of a protective order, Defendants here were put
to the Hobson’s choice of signing the Protective Order presented by Plaintiffs so their outside counsel could receive
Plaintiffs’ under seal filings or incur a delay in counsel’s receipt of those filings until the court settled the final terms
of the Protective Order. Defendants understandably signed the Protective Order and decided to leave for another day
challenges to its specific terms. In any event, on whomever the burden may lie, the court concludes that the Protective
Order should be modified to permit Defendants to disclose declarants’ identities to their employees for the limited
purpose of preparing their defense.
As evidence of potential retaliation, Plaintiffs point to one declaration provided by an FTC
lawyer stating that the customer declarants told him that they fear “retaliation or retribution from
Sysco and/or US Foods if Sysco and/or US Foods knew about their participation in the
Commission’s investigation.” Quillian Decl., ECF No. 66-5, ¶ 5. The court will not impose a
discovery restriction based on speculation by an unspecified number of unidentified declarants.
Although the court understands that some third parties would prefer to avoid disclosure of their
identities, as the Supreme Court observed in Seattle Times, the Rules allow for “extensive
intrusion” into the affairs of third parties. 467 U.S. at 30. The disclosure of the third-party
declarants’ identities does not rise to the level of an “extensive intrusion.” And the mere prospect
of retaliation is not enough to trigger Rule 26(c)’s protective mechanism against such limited
The court is likewise unpersuaded by Plaintiffs’ concern about a chilling effect on future
investigations. No one disputes that witness names have become public in past merger cases
through pre-hearing disclosures and court decisions. See, e.g., Pls.’ Prelim. Ex. List, United States
v. H&R Block Inc., No. 11-cv-0948 (D.D.C. 2011), ECF No. 100; Ex. List, FTC v. CCC Holdings,
Inc., No. 08-cv-2043 (D.D.C. 2009), ECF No. 60-1; Pls.’ Ex. List, FTC v. Arch Coal, No. 04-cv0534 (D.D.C. 2004), ECF No. 77-2. Such disclosures seemingly have had little or no chilling
effect, as demonstrated by the investigation that led to this case. Plaintiffs were able to obtain
over 90 declarations from witnesses employed by companies of various sizes in various markets
that compete or contract with Defendants. Many of the declarations run multiple, single-spaced
pages in length and provide substantial detail about the declarants’ businesses, their relationships
with Defendants, and their views about the proposed merger. Though the declarants routinely
requested that their identities be kept confidential and exempt from public disclosure, Plaintiffs
have pointed to only one unnamed declarant who expressly said that he would not have voluntarily
participated in the investigation if he believed his name would become public. See Quillian
Decl. ¶ 7. The court, therefore, is unconvinced that Plaintiffs’ concern about a potential chilling
effect outweighs Defendants’ immediate need for the declarants’ identities to prepare their
Plaintiffs have cited several statutes and regulations to support the continued nondisclosure of the declarants’ identities. Pls.’ Opp’n Mem. at 1. But those provisions are either
(1) inapplicable, see 15 U.S.C. § 46(f) (non-disclosure of “any trade secret or any commercial or
financial information” in reports to Congress); (2) concern non-disclosure in response to Freedom
of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests, see 15 U.S.C. § 57b-2(f) (restricting disclosure of
“documentary material, tangible things, written reports or answers to questions, and transcripts of
oral testimony” received in investigations from FOIA); 16 C.F.R. §§ 4.10, 4.11 (same); or
(3) contain express exceptions for judicial proceedings, see, e.g., 15 U.S.C. § 18a(h) (permitting
disclosure “as may be relevant to any administrative or judicial action or proceeding”).
Lastly, Plaintiffs’ claimed need for pre-trial non-disclosure is substantially diminished by
the FTC’s own Rules of Practice, which strongly favor public disclosure. The Rules of Practice
allow in camera treatment of evidence only after the administrative law judge has made a “finding
that . . . public disclosure will likely result in a clearly defined, serious injury to the person,
partnership, or corporation requesting in camera treatment or after finding that the material
constitutes sensitive personal information.” 16 C.F.R. § 3.45(b). Although Rule 3.45(b) is not a
The court likewise is unpersuaded by Plaintiffs’ argument that “the protective orders in Ardagh, CCC Holdings, and
Staples each contains provisions stating that the identities of third parties who participated in Plaintiffs’ investigation
are presumptively confidential.” Pls.’ Opp’n Mem. at 2. The court has reviewed those protective orders, but ultimately
finds that the circumstances of this case warrant Defendants’ access to the declarants’ identities. As Plaintiffs
themselves acknowledge, “[p]rotective orders are flexible and designed to accommodate the relevant interests in each
case.” Id. at 2, n.1 (citation omitted).
discovery rule and applies only to materials actually submitted into evidence at the hearing, the
FTC’s Rules express a strong presumption in favor of transparency that diminishes Plaintiffs’
stated need to keep the declarants’ names secret.
In light of the foregoing, the court shall modify the Protective Order to add the following
text to the end of the last line of paragraph 2:
However, defense counsel shall be permitted to disclose the identity of a third-party
submitter to an employee of a Defendant only after first giving notice to counsel
for the FTC that defense counsel intends to make such disclosure for the purpose
of preparing the defense. The FTC or the third-party submitter may petition the
court for a protective order within 24 hours after receipt of notice from Defendant’s
counsel. (If the expiration of 24 hours occurs over the weekend or on a designated
courthouse holiday, the time period shall be extended until noon on the next
business day.) If no motion is filed within 24 hours, defense counsel may make the
intended disclosure. Defendants’ counsel shall instruct any employee to whom
disclosure is made that (1) the disclosure is for the limited purpose of preparing the
defense and (2) the submitter’s identity and the fact that the submitter provided
evidence in the investigation shall not be further disclosed or used for any purpose
other than aiding counsel.
See Protective Order, FTC v. CCC Holdings, Inc., No. 08-cv-2043, (D.D.C. 2009) (Collyer, J.),
ECF No. 30, ¶ 12. If the FTC or a third party seeks a protective order under the above paragraph,
the court will require him or her to offer more than “conclusory or speculative statements about
the need for a protective order and the harm which will be suffered without one.” Huthnance, 255
F.R.D. at 296 (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).4
For the reasons stated herein, Defendants’ Motion to Make Public Declarant Names and
Affiliations is granted in part and denied in part. The Protective Order is hereby modified as set
forth above. The parties, if they wish, may submit a revised Protective Order for the court’s
Shortly before the court filed this Memorandum Opinion and Order, it received an opposition from Third-Party
Intervener Shamrock Foods Company, which expressed concern about the public disclosure of one its executive’s
names. ECF No. 91. The court has not ruled on public disclosure of declarants’ identities, and the modified Protective
Order will allow Shamrock’s executive to challenge the disclosure of his name if Defendants wish to share it with one
of their employees to prepare their defense.
signature; otherwise, this Memorandum Opinion and Order shall constitute an amendment to the
Protective Order. The declarants’ identities otherwise shall remain non-public, unless and until
the court orders their disclosure.
Dated: March 18, 2015
Amit P. Mehta
United States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?