Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College et al
Letter/request (non-motion) from SFFA re: Treatment of Materials Marked Confidential . (Consovoy, William)
3033 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22201
March 30, 2018
Hon. Allison D. Burroughs
U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts
John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse
1 Courthouse Way, Suite 2300
Boston, MA 02210
Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College,
Dear Judge Burroughs,
Pursuant to this Court’s March 14, 2018 order, Plaintiff Students for Fair
Admissions, Inc. (“SFFA”) submits this letter to address the treatment of confidential
materials in SFFA’s forthcoming motion for summary judgment. The parties have met
and conferred but have been unable to resolve the dispute.
“Documents submitted to a court for its consideration in a summary judgment
motion are—as a matter of law—judicial documents to which a strong presumption
of access attaches, under both the common law and the First Amendment.” Lugosch v.
Pyramid Co. of Onondaga, 435 F.3d 110, 121 (2d Cir. 2006). A party seeking to seal
such records must provide “the most compelling reasons,” In re Providence Journal
Co., 293 F.3d 1, 10 (1st Cir. 2002), and “must ensure that any sealing is narrowly
tailored to shield as little from public view as possible,” Bradford & Bigelow, Inc. v.
Richardson, 109 F. Supp. 3d 445, 449 (D. Mass. 2015).
Harvard cannot provide such “compelling reasons”—indeed, it has not even
tried. In response to SFFA’s repeated requests during the two-week meet-and-confer
process, Harvard refused to identify a single document or category of documents that
it believes should be sealed. Instead, it has generally maintained that its documents
contain “volumes of sensitive personal and business information” that must be
withheld from public view. That is insufficient under controlling First Circuit law.
Harvard’s refusal to identify particular documents appears to be deliberate—
it knows that examination of any specific material produced in this case would reveal
no basis to satisfy the high bar for withholding documents. As Harvard knows, the
public interest in this civil rights case is paramount. SFFA alleges that Harvard—a
premier university that accepts hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding—is
discriminating against Asian Americans and otherwise egregiously violating Title VI
of the Civil Rights Act. The public has a profoundly important interest in observing
and understanding how the Court resolves this case.
Moreover, the operation of Harvard’s admissions process is simply not the
type of information that belongs under seal. This case does not involve anything like
“national security, the formula for Coca Cola, or embarrassing details of private life.”
Poliquin v. Garden Way, Inc., 989 F.2d 527, 533 (1st Cir. 1993). And even if it could be
worthy of such protection, Harvard has disseminated detailed information about its
admissions process for decades, and countless articles and books are dedicated to the
subject. As Harvard proudly admits on its website, “there is no formula for gaining
admission to Harvard.”
Even if certain records were eligible for impoundment, the importance to
Harvard in keeping them secret could not outweigh the strong presumption of access
in this case. The simplest way to think about this issue is to picture what this case will
look like on appeal. If Harvard is correct, then the appellate briefs will be mostly
redacted and oral argument will be held in closed courtrooms. Moreover, if Harvard’s
argument were correct, then the briefing in Gratz, Grutter, and Fisher would have
been sealed, the Supreme Court would have held oral argument in secret, the
transcripts would have been withheld from the public, and the opinions would have
been littered with redactions. That is unimaginable.
No doubt recognizing the uphill battle it faces, Harvard has proposed that the
Court should issue a blanket sealing order over the entire summary judgment record,
and then the parties should determine later (through a “reasonable schedule”)
whether any of it was properly sealed. That is not how this works. Blanket sealing
orders are “rarely, if ever, appropriate.” Landmark Am. Ins. Co. v. Magoo’s II, Inc., 2007
WL 3023265, at *1 (D. Conn. Oct. 12, 2007). The Court disfavors motions to seal.
Indeed, they are granted only after the Court engages in “a careful document-bydocument review of the particular portions of the document that a party wishes to be
kept under seal and after considering whether the requested order is no broader than
necessary to serve the interests that require protection.” Id.
That is why the Court made clear (and Harvard conceded) at the outset of this
case that the protective order would not dictate what would be sealed at summary
judgment or trial. That is why SFFA reached out to Harvard to discuss which types of
documents, if any, it believed should be filed under seal. And that is presumably why
the Court scheduled a hearing for April 10 to discuss these issues. Harvard cannot
override the Court’s obligations by making broad generalizations about its interests
and refusing to identify any documents it believes must be filed under seal. Harvard’s
proposal has the process exactly backwards.
SFFA’s proposal for dealing with the summary judgment record is workable
and comports with the right of access the public enjoys under the common law and
the First Amendment. SFFA will redact the summary judgment record to ensure that
the identity of any Harvard applicant or student (present or former) will not be
disclosed. This is appropriate and does not impede the public’s right of access.
Moreover, this will likely implicate few, if any, documents that SFFA will file with its
motion. This suit is not about the treatment of individual students. It is about whether
Harvard has engaged in a pattern of discrimination. Given the importance of student
privacy and the irrelevancy of individual student identities to this dispute, the Court
is within its authority to authorize these limited redactions. See, e.g., Sahrle v. Greece
Cent. School Dist., No. 10-cv-6631, 2015 WL 4872410, at *2 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2015).1
Beyond that, there is no justification for redacting any other information. This
is a landmark civil rights issue for which the public’s right of access is at an apex.
Harvard’s position should be seen for what it is—an effort to shield its actions from
public review and a request that this Court rule on a record not available to the public.
This unwarranted stance should be rejected.
On March 14, 2018, the Court issued an order directing the parties to “meet
and confer regarding the treatment of confidential materials to narrow the areas of
dispute” and to “file letter briefs on the outstanding issues by March 30, 2018.” At
Harvard’s suggestion, SFFA reviewed the documents and information produced by
Harvard on a category-by-category basis to determine which summary judgment
documents (if any) should be filed under seal or redacted.
On March 16, SFFA informed Harvard that it would not file on the public
docket any document that would “reveal the identity of any Harvard applicant or
Harvard student.” SFFA explained, however, that this would implicate few documents
given that Harvard has produced nearly all such information in redacted form (such
that SFFA does not even have access to it). SFFA also made clear that if “limited
redactions are needed to ensure that Harvard applicants or Harvard students are not
identified, SFFA will work collaboratively with Harvard in advance of summary
judgment to ensure those redactions are made.”
SFFA informed Harvard that it had identified seven categories of documents
that might be used in its summary judgment filing: (1) tabulated admissions data (e.g.,
documents summarizing historical admissions rates); (2) summaries and other
compilations based on the database produced by Harvard (e.g., aggregate information
about the applicant and admitted pools of students to Harvard); (3) internal reports
created by Harvard; (4) emails from or to Harvard admissions officers and other
Harvard employees; (5) documents related to the admissions process; (6) deposition
transcripts; and (7) the expert reports. SFFA concluded that given Harvard’s heavy
burden to prevent public access to documents filed in conjunction with a summary
judgment motion, it was unlikely that any of these categories of documents could be
sealed. If Harvard disagreed, SFFA requested that Harvard “specifically identify which
category or categories of documents include material that Harvard will seek to have
sealed and the legal basis for each request.”
Indeed, SFFA does not even have access to most of this information, as Harvard already has
redacted all personally identifiable information of applicants, alumni, and donors, as well as
information concerning the University’s business that it deems irrelevant. Harvard also has withheld
all personally identifiable information from the database it produced to SFFA.
SFFA did not hear back from Harvard until March 22—six days later. Harvard
rejected SFFA’s proposal, stating that SFFA’s categories contain “volumes of sensitive
personal and business information” and “information that can be used to ascertain
the identities of Harvard applicants and students.” Harvard promised to provide “a
more reasonable approach next week,” but did not identify any document it believed
could properly be sealed or any supporting cases.
SFFA responded on the same day, reiterating that it would “work with Harvard
to redact any document to ensure applicants and students are not individually
identifiable.” SFFA also emphasized that it was unaware of any document containing
“sensitive business information” that could possibly satisfy the heavy burden for
filing under seal at the summary judgment stage. Nevertheless, SFFA maintained that
it was “open to being convinced otherwise,” urged Harvard to identify the types of
documents that it believed should be filed under seal, and noted its availability that
week and over the weekend to discuss the issues.
Five days later, on March 27, Harvard proposed for the first time that the
parties “file their summary judgment papers and supporting documents under seal”
and then set a “reasonable schedule thereafter—with first priority given to the briefs
themselves—for determining the parties’ positions on which documents should (1)
remain entirely sealed, (2) be redacted, or (3) be filed publicly.” As to the substance
of the documents, Harvard stated that it was “continuing to evaluate … whether we
can agree to any of what you have proposed” and that it might be available for a meet
and confer on Thursday, March 29. Once again, Harvard identified no document it
believed could properly be sealed on a motion for summary judgment and no cases
supporting its position.
On March 28, SFFA explained to Harvard that its proposal “to issue a blanket
sealing order and then to determine later whether any documents were properly
sealed is untenable and finds no support in the case law,” that the proposal was not
consistent with the Court’s instructions, and that it was especially improper “given
that Harvard has yet to identify a single document that could be properly filed under
seal.” The proposal also would “deny amici curiae access to the record and briefs and
thus prevent them from participating in this case.”
On March 29, the parties met and conferred by phone. Harvard maintained its
position that all summary judgment briefs and record materials should be filed under
seal first. Despite SFFA’s requests, Harvard again declined to identify any document
that it believed could meet the standard for being filed under seal.
There is a “longstanding tradition of public access to trials and pre-trial
motions in our judicial system—a tradition that is protected both by the common law
and the First Amendment.” Bradford & Bigelow, 109 F. Supp. 3d at 447 (citing Nixon
v. Warner Comm’ns, 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978)). This tradition endures because
“[p]ublic access to judicial records and documents allows citizenry to monitor the
functioning of our courts, thereby insuring quality, honesty and respect for our legal
system.” FTC v. Standard Fin. Mgmt. Corp., 830 F.2d 404, 410 (1st Cir. 1987) (citation
omitted); Publicker Indus., Inc. v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059, 1070 (3d Cir. 1984)
(explaining that access “enhances the quality and safeguards the integrity of the
factfinding process. It fosters an appearance of fairness, and heightens public respect
for the judicial process. It permits the public to participate in and serve as a check
upon the judicial process—an essential component in our structure of selfgovernment”); Lugosch, 435 F.3d at 119 (“[P]rofessional and public monitoring is an
essential feature of democratic control.”). It also is “driven by administrative
concerns,” given that the court “expends considerable resources to process and
maintain sealed documents.” Bradford & Bigelow, Inc., 109 F. Supp. 3d at 447 (citing
Dunkin Donuts v. Agawan Donuts, No. 07-cv-11444, 2008 WL 427290, at *1 (D. Mass.
Feb. 13, 2008)).
The common law and the First Amendment both apply here. The common law
right of access applies to all “judicial records and documents.” Nixon, 435 U.S. at 597;
see United States v. Kravetz, 706 F.3d 47, 58-59 (1st Cir. 2013). The First Amendment
right attaches “to particular judicial records such as documents filed in connection
with summary judgment motion in civil cases.” Erichsen v. RBC Capital Markets, LLC,
883 F. Supp. 2d 562, 574 (E.D.N.C. 2012); see also Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246,
267 (4th Cir. 2014) (“We have squarely held that the First Amendment right of access
attaches to materials filed in connection with a summary judgment motion.”);
Mangosoft, Inc. v. Oracle Corp., No. 02-cv-545, 2005 WL 2203171, at *2 (D.N.H. Sept.
9, 2005). Thus, “documents submitted to a court for its consideration in a summary
judgment motion are—as a matter of law—judicial documents to which a strong
presumption of access attaches, under both the common law and the First
Amendment.” Lugosch, 435 F.3d at 121; Bradford & Bigelow, 109 F. Supp. 3d at 448.2
As a result, “only the most compelling reasons can justify non-disclosure” of
these records. In re Providence Journal Co., 293 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2002) (quoting
Standard Fin. Mgmt., 830 F.2d at 410); see, e.g., Hilsinger Co. v. Eyeego, LLC, No. 13-cv10954, 2014 WL 5475032, at *1 (D. Mass. Oct. 29, 2014). For example, “the statement
that ‘this proprietary and confidential information, if publicly disclosed, would
provide competitors of the Defendant and Defendant’s vendors an unfair advantage’
without more is not enough to override the common law and First Amendment rights
of the public to review court documents.” Shamblin v. Obama for America, No. 132428, 2014 WL 6065752, at *2 (M.D. Fla. 2014). Harvard, therefore, “must establish
an overriding interest in sealing and must ensure that any sealing is narrowly tailored
to shield as little from public view as possible.” Bradford & Bigelow, 109 F. Supp. 3d
Even if, as Harvard has suggested, Doc. 386 at 24-25, the presumption of access is stronger
at trial than at summary judgment, the distinction is semantical here. The strongest possible
presumption of access applies not only to trial documents, but also to those documents “that will be
included in an appellate record.” Bradford & Bigelow, 109 F. Supp. 3d at 448 (citing Poliquin, 989 F.2d
at 533). The documents at issue will be part of the appellate record and play a central role in the appeal
no matter which party ultimately prevails before this Court. In all events, then, “the public interest is
strongest (and the burden to overcome it the highest) for [the] documents” in dispute. Id.
at 449. Harvard “must explain, on a document-by-document basis, why sealing is
required and how their request satisfies the applicable legal standard.” Id. at 447.3
Harvard Has Not Satisfied Its Burden To Withhold “Sensitive Business
Information” Contained in Summary Judgment Filings from the Public
Despite repeated requests from SFFA to identify specific documents (or even
categories of documents) that should be sealed, Harvard broadly asserts that there
are “volumes of sensitive … business information” that should be withheld from the
public. Given the high public interest in this case and the strong presumption of public
access, Harvard cannot show “the most compelling reasons [necessary to] justify nondisclosure” of these records. In re Providence Journal Co., 293 F.3d at 9.
The public has a strong interest in this case.
As explained above, the public has an important interest in “access to judicial
records and documents” in all cases. See Standard Fin. Mgmt., 830 F.2d at 410. But
access to judicial records is especially vital where the case “involves issues important
to the public.” Pansy v. Borough of Stroudsburg, 23 F.3d 772, 788 (3d Cir. 1994). This
is one of those cases.
First, this is a civil rights case. “The public has a profoundly important interest
in giving force to the federal civil rights law.” Floyd v. City of New York, 739 F. Supp.
2d 376, 381 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). When “a lawsuit involves a matter of public concern such
as civil rights,” that is “a factor that will usually support disclosure.” Id.; see, e.g., Price
v. Equilon Enterprises LLC, No. 11-1553, 2012 WL 12846100, at *1 (W.D. Wash. Nov.
20, 2012) (“This case involves allegations of gender- and sexual orientation-based
discrimination at a lab of a prominent global company. The public has an interest and
right to access the documents that bear on these allegations.”); Bullard v. Goodyear
Tire & Rubber Co., No. 09-4024, 2011 WL 5248085, at *2 (D. Kan. Apr. 12, 2011) (“The
accusations found in the plaintiff’s employment record, as well as the evidence
surrounding these alleged events, are central issues in the pending summary
judgment proceeding of this employment discrimination case. The public certainly is
entitled to know why, how and on what basis the court decided the summary
Second, this is a civil rights case about the use of racial preferences in college
admissions. These cases generate enormous public interest. See, e.g., Supreme Court
Docket, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345 (S. Ct.) (98 amicus briefs); Supreme
Court Docket, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981 (92 amicus briefs); Supreme
Thus, if the Court agrees with Harvard’s position, it will have to independently review each
document to decide what (if any) redactions to permit. That will be a significant undertaking given that
Harvard’s position implicates nearly every relevant document. See infra at 12-13.
Court Docket, Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241 (98 amicus briefs). This case (in which
SFFA alleges, inter alia, that Harvard—one of the oldest, wealthiest, and most
prestigious universities in the world—is discriminating against Asian Americans) is
no exception. See, e.g., Jeannie Suk Gerson, The Uncomfortable Truth About Affirmative
Action and Asian-Americans, The New Yorker (Aug. 10, 2017); Anemona Hartocollis &
Stephanie Sau, Affirmative Action Battle Has a New Focus: Asian-Americans, N.Y. Times
(Aug. 3, 2017); Nicole Hong, Lawsuit Accusing Harvard of Anti-Asian Bias Revives
Scrutiny of Affirmative Action, Wall St. J. (Aug. 3, 2017). The public’s interest in these
cases is one of the reasons why “minority admissions schemes” must be “transparent
and protective of individual review.” Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 394 (2003)
(Kennedy, J., dissenting). It is the only way to ensure that “[p]rospective students, the
courts, and the public” can be confident that university admissions policies are “fair
and constitutional in every phase of implementation.” Id.
Third, Harvard annually receives more than half a billion dollars from the
federal government. Harvard Univ., 2017 Fiscal Report 6, https://goo.gl/hjsmbx.
Quite naturally, “the public’s interest in the judicial record is especially acute where—
as here—the government has subsidized the good or service underlying the litigation
from the public fisc.” United States v. Sanford-Brown, Ltd., 788 F.3d 696, 712 (7th Cir.
2015). The public has a right to know, after all, whether the substantial money that
Harvard receives from them is being used for illegal purposes. Accordingly, “a party
that is subsidized by the public fisc and that seeks to seal portions of the record must
satisfy a higher burden than a party that receives no government subsidy must satisfy
in order to achieve the same result.” Id. at 712-13.
Harvard cannot overcome the strong presumption of public
access that applies to this case.
Harvard argues that information about the process through which it admits its
students is highly confidential business information. That is incorrect. First, Harvard’s
information is not a trade secret or anything like one. Even if it were, Harvard has so
extensively disclosed the information as to forfeit any protection to which it might
otherwise have been entitled. Second, even if the information were a trade secret, the
public’s interest in disclosure here outweighs Harvard’s interest in confidentiality. If
Harvard is correct, then nearly every relevant document in this case will have to be
sealed. The Court “cannot hold a fair hearing on the summary judgment motion while
the key documents are still under seal.” California ex rel. Lockyer v. Safeway, Inc., 355
F. Supp. 2d 1111, 1126 (C.D. Cal. 2005).
Harvard’s admissions process is not a trade secret or
confidential business information.
The information that Harvard seeks to keep from the public is not protectable.
Although Harvard was unwilling to explain the basis for its position during the meetand-confer process ordered by the Court, it appears from previous correspondence
between the parties that Harvard wants to seal what it refers to as “trade secret
and/or commercially sensitive information” and “confidential business information
and practices.” The documents Harvard is referring to are those that could reveal:
“how readers or other evaluators determine and assign different ratings and scores;
the meaning of specific numerical scores or when specific scores are assigned to
particular types of applicants; how Harvard calculates the academic index score; how
Harvard classifies the race of applicants; the names and meanings of specific codes or
labels assigned to applicants by readers, and how readers assign them; and details
about how Harvard retains applicant records and information.” In other words,
Harvard appears to believe that the manner in which it conducts its undergraduate
admission process—i.e., the very subject of this litigation—should be kept secret.
That argument fails under controlling precedent. To qualify for protection
under the common law and the First Amendment, the information must be akin to a
trade secret. “‘Simply showing that the information would harm the company’s
reputation is not sufficient to overcome the strong common law presumption in favor
of public access to court proceedings and records .... Indeed, common sense tells us
that the greater the motivation a corporation has to shield its operations, the greater
the public’s need to know. In such cases, a court should not seal records unless public
access would reveal legitimate trade secrets, a recognized exception to the right of
public access to judicial records.’” In re Gitto Global Corp., No. 05-cv-10334, 2005 WL
1027348, at *10 (D. Mass. May 2, 2005) (quoting Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. v.
FTC, 710 F.2d 1179-80 (6th Cir. 1983)).4
In other words, the fact that the business information is kept confidential is
insufficient. As the Third Circuit has explained, “documents do not contain trade
secrets merely because they are confidential.” Littlejohn, 851 F.2d at 685. “A trade
secret,” under the Restatement, “consist[s] of any formula, pattern, device or
compilation of information which is used in one’s business, and which gives him an
opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know or use it.”
Harvard Apparatus, Inc. v. Cowen, 130 F. Supp. 2d 161, 174 (D. Mass. 2001) (citations
omitted). Many courts apply this definition in deciding whether to impound judicial
documents. See, e.g., Apple Inc. v. Samsung Electronics Co., 727 F.3d 1214, 1221 (Fed.
Cir. 2013); Chicago Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1313
n.13 (11th Cir. 2001). It is the definition under Massachusetts law as well. See Take It
Away, Inc. v. Home Depot, Inc., 374 F. App’x 47, 50 (1st Cir. 2010).
Harvard cannot show that the manner in which it conducts admissions is akin
to a trade secret. There is nothing special about the factors Harvard claims to use in
making admissions decisions. There is no unique element; no special formula. That is
why Harvard openly proclaims that “[t]here is no formula for gaining admission to
To the extent that the Freedom of Information Act imposes a lower standard for protecting
business information, it is irrelevant here. See Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 710 F.2d at 1177 (“It
is clear that [FOIA] was not intended to restrict the federal courts—either by mandating disclosure or
by requiring non-disclosure—under the § 552 exemptions.”); see, e.g., Long, 2011 WL 2490950, at *2
(“Fairbank is correct that FOIA standards are inapposite.”). This is not a FOIA dispute and, in any event,
the right of access here is partially grounded in the Constitution.
Harvard.” What Admissions Criteria Do You Use, Harvard
True, different universities presumably weigh different factors differently.
And, at least in theory, Harvard may not want others to know which attributes it
values most. But see infra at 10-11. That does not make the information proprietary,
however. If it did, the record in most Title VII cases would need to be sealed. Every
employer has slightly different criteria for hiring and promotion. If those variations
were proprietary, then the federal courts would be brimming with impounded
documents. But SFFA has been unable to locate any case in which this kind of
decisional criteria—admissions, hiring, promotion, tenure, and the like—has been
sealed as a trade secret. Indeed, none of this information was sealed in analogous
cases. See, e.g., Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244, 255-57 (2003); Grutter, 539 U.S. at 31516; Fisher v. Univ. of Texas at Austin, 570 U.S. 297, 305-07 (2013). Harvard even
submitted a copy of its admissions plan in Regents of University of California v. Bakke,
438 U.S. 265, 321 (1978) (Appendix to opinion of Powell, J.).
But even if the Court deems “confidential business information”—as opposed
to trade secrets—eligible for impoundment, Harvard’s request still fails. “[I]mplicit in
the notion of ‘confidential business information’ is something beyond the mere fact
that the particular datum has not previously been made available to the public.”
Salomon Smith Barney, Inc. v. HBO & Co., No. 98-721, 2001 WL 225040, at *3 (S.D.N.Y.
Mar. 7, 2001). Harvard cannot meet this test. Harvard, of course, is a nonprofit—not
a business—and thus does not speak of its admissions process in commercial terms.
Regardless, Harvard appears concerned that applicants will learn more about its
admissions system. But “confidential business information” is impounded to prevent
competitive harm. See Nixon, 435 U.S. at 598; Leucadia, Inc. v. Applied Extrusion Techs.,
Inc., 998 F.2d 157, 166 (3d Cir. 1993); Apple Inc., 727 F.3d at 1221. Applicants do not
compete with Harvard—they compete with each other. Nor do other universities
compete with Harvard at the admissions stage. Some compete with Harvard for
admitted students. But they do not compete with Harvard in selecting students for
admission, at least if they are being honest about admissions criteria being set in
accordance with their academic mission and unique institutional values.
At most, then, disclosing these records will give Harvard’s “customers” some
additional information about the “product” Harvard sells. That is not competitive
information. But even if it were, giving applicants access to truthful information about
the details of Harvard’s admissions system will cause Harvard no more competitive
harm than informing consumers about the quality of an article of commerce they may
purchase—which is to say none. The disclosure here simply is not sought to “gain
unfair commercial advantage.” FTC v. AbbVie Prods., 713 F.3d 54, 62 (11th Cir. 2013).5
During the discovery process, the Court raised the concern that certain information might
give “Mr. Blum’s kid or his neighbor’s kids or everybody he knew … an advantage in the admissions
process.” Hearing Tr. at 25 (Sept. 6, 2016). Even if there were such special information, but see infra
10-11, no competitive advantage could be gained from public access to the summary judgment filings
because everyone (not just those connected to Mr. Blum) would have access to them. In any event, the
Regardless, Harvard has not kept information about its admissions process
confidential. Far from it, Harvard has made public all of the key details about its
admissions system. Much of it was disclosed in the Department of Education’s 1990
report on Harvard’s admissions process. Further, the information has been
repeatedly disclosed through the press (often by Harvard itself). Examples include:
Stephen M. Marks, “Stairway to Harvard,” Harvard Crimson (July 7, 2006)
(describing, inter alia, that “[b]oth readers score the applicant using a 1-to-6
scale on academics, extracurriculars, athletics, personal qualities, and an
overall composite rating; the subcommittee and committee refer to these
scores in their deliberations.”).
Malcolm Gladwell, Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions, The
New Yorker (Oct. 10, 2005) (“By the nineteen-sixties … [Harvard] began by
lumping all applicants into one of twenty-two dockets, according to their
geographical origin. There was one docket for Exeter and Andover, another for
the eight Rocky Mountain states. Information from interviews, references, and
student essays was then used to grade each applicant on a scale of 1 to 6, along
four dimensions: personal, academic, extracurricular, and athletic.”).
Dan Rosenheck, Keys to the Kingdom, Boston Magazine (Nov. 2005) (revealing
“admissions officers start by assessing each applicant in four areas
(academics, extracurriculars, personal qualities, and athletics) on a scale of
one (best) to six (worst). Those who pass this initial threshold move forward
to a second and sometimes third reader for further appraisal.”).
William R. Fitzsimmons, Guidance Office: Answers from Harvard’s Dean, Part 1,
N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2009), https://goo.gl/SxAWze (describing in great detail
Harvard’s admissions process in a four-part Q&A with Dean Fitzsimmons).
On Harvard Time, Harvard Admissions Dean Interview, https://goo.gl/4G1fXn
(video interview with Dean Fitzsimmons revealing, inter alia, that Harvard
looks for applicants who have a “distinguishing excellence”).
David Dent, Conversations on Admitting: One-on-One with Harvard Admissions
Officer, HuffPost (Dec. 16, 2017) (Harvard admissions officer revealing that
“we’re looking for what we call a distinguishing excellence going through this
Elizabeth Heaton, What Kind of Hook Do I Need to Get Accepted to an Ivy League
College?, HuffPost (Apr. 10, 2017) (revealing that “a distinguishing excellence,
or DE, represents significant achievement in a particular field”).
Ishan Puri, How to Get Accepted by Harvard, Synocate (Jan. 11, 2016)
(explaining that Harvard divides “high schools ... geographically to a specific
Court was discussing what label certain documents could be given under the protective order during
discovery—not what documents could be sealed at summary judgment or trial. See infra 14-15. The
notion, for example, that Mr. Blum—the President of the entity that has brought this litigation—could
be excluded from attending the trial is absurd.
admissions officer responsible for certain regions,” “each person will make
comments and assessments before they send to someone else,” after “the first
admissions officer reads your application, he/she will send your application
to more senior people,” and that “admissions officers then meet at the regional
level, make initial recommendations (around 4-12 people), and then meet
with the full committee (including the dean and all 40 admissions officers) to
discuss these cases”).
Ivy League Admissions Are a Sham: Confessions of a Harvard Gatekeeper,
Gawker (Mar. 18, 2015) (quoting from the Harvard Interviewer Handbook).
Princeton Review, The Truth About Harvard: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at
Admissions and Life on Campus 14-24 (2004) (describing “how the admissions
office reads your file,” how admissions officers are assigned by “dockets,” how
offers are made through early decision, regular decision, waitlist, and the ZList, how Harvard “decide[s] whom to accept,” how Harvard awards “special
preference” to legacies, recruited athletes, and minorities, and how Harvard
uses teacher and guidance counselor recommendations and alumni
interviews); see id. at 210-212 (identifying additional public sources detailing
Harvard’s admissions process).
Obviously, it is not “confidential business information” if Harvard has already
publicly revealed the substance of it. See, e.g., Sam’s Riverside, Inc. v. Intercon Sol’ns,
Inc., 790 F. Supp. 2d 965, 971 n.2 (S.D. Iowa 2011) (“[T]he Court concludes that it is
not necessary to seal this opinion, as it contains no information that the Court deems
to be confidential. Indeed, some of the documents that the parties filed under seal do
not appear to be confidential in any way.”). Nor is it commercially sensitive if Harvard
is so willing to discuss it in the press when it suits its interests. Seeking impoundment
here is about impeding public scrutiny of Harvard’s admissions process—not about
protecting Harvard from unfair competition.
The interest in public access outweighs any marginal
interest in confidentiality Harvard might possess.
But even if information about Harvard’s admissions process were eligible for
impoundment, that would not mean that the records in dispute necessarily should be
sealed. That is just the beginning of the inquiry. The issue is “whether the need for
secrecy outweighs the presumption of access that normally attaches to such
documents.” Leucadia, Inc., 998 F.2d at 166 (emphasis added). The Court still “must
carefully balance the competing interests that are at stake in the particular case.”
Hansen v. Rhode Island’s Only 24 Hour Truck & Auto Plaza, Inc., 863 F. Supp. 2d 122,
123 (D. Mass. 2012) (citation omitted). In so doing, the Court must consider “the role
of the material at issue in the exercise of Article III judicial power and the resultant
value of such information to those monitoring the federal courts.” Lugosch, 435 F.3d
at 121. The need for access here outweighs Harvard’s interest in secrecy.
This information goes to the heart of the case. A key issue in dispute is whether
Harvard is manipulating its admissions system in ways that violate Title VI. That issue
has been the subject of extensive document production, internal communications and
reports, dozens of depositions, and the expert reports. It would be impossible for the
public to understand whether Harvard’s admissions system—especially the pivotal
internal mechanisms used to sort and advance applicants through the process—is
being manipulated if they are prevented from knowing how the system is supposed
to work in the first place. How can the public know, for example, whether Asian
Americans are discriminated against by not being deemed as having a “distinguishing
excellence” if they do not know what Harvard claims to be the neutral criteria for
achieving that status in the application process?
Gratz illustrates the point. There, it was important to the outcome that being
an underrepresented minority was worth 20 out of 150 points in the University of
Michigan’s undergraduate admissions system. See Gratz, 539 U.S. at 255. In addition
to constituting an important predicate fact, this information also placed the size of the
preference in context both as a percentage of the overall score, see id. at 270 (“We find
that the University’s policy, which automatically distributes 20 points, or one-fifth of
the points needed to guarantee admission, to every single ‘underrepresented
minority’ applicant solely because of race, is not narrowly tailored to achieve the
interest in educational diversity that respondents claim justifies their program.”), and
as an indicator of how much comparative value the university attributed to it, see id.
at 278 (O’Connor, J., concurring) (“Most importantly for this case, an applicant
automatically receives a 20-point bonus if he or she possesses any one of the
following ‘miscellaneous’ factors: membership in an underrepresented minority
group; attendance at a predominantly minority or disadvantaged high school; or
recruitment for athletics.”). There is no way the public could have understood the
dispute if the facts—that Michigan used a point system, that being an
underrepresented minority garnered certain points, that it was worth the same
number of points as being a recruited athlete, or any combination of these facts—had
The centrality of this information also creates practical problems. If Harvard’s
sweeping position were accepted, then SFFA anticipates that nearly every document
it intends to introduce in support of summary judgment would need to be redacted
or filed under seal. The expert reports would need to be substantially redacted, as
would the documents Harvard produced in discovery that describe its admission
process. But so too would the internal documents Harvard uses to sort, review, and
advance applicants through its process. And that is just the beginning. The nature of
Harvard’s system was a topic of most of the depositions as well; thus, substantial
portions of those transcripts would need to be redacted too. In all likelihood, almost
the entire summary judgment record would need to be redacted to one degree or
another. See Young v. Liberty Mut. Grp. Inc., No. 12-cv-2302, 2014 WL 6886018, at *2
(D. Ariz. Dec. 5, 2014) (“[B]ecause Plaintiff’s case largely centers on her medical
condition and various medical examiners’ opinion of it, to allow all materials
containing Plaintiff’s medical information to be filed under seal would effectively seal
the entire case, and, thus, would infringe too extensively on the public right to access
court records”) (citation omitted). It would not only be an administrative nightmare
for the Court, but it would ignite collateral litigation over each document.
Worse still, this effort all would be for naught unless the Court is prepared to
hold the trial in secret or, if summary judgment is granted, the Court believes that the
First Circuit and the Supreme Court will adopt the same approach for the appellate
briefing and arguments. That seems highly unlikely based on controlling law. It is
unrealistic to think that the trial (if necessary) and appeals will be held in secret. One
way or another, then, these documents will become public in the near future. There
is no justification for delaying public access—especially given how central summary
judgment is to the adjudicatory process. Broadly impounding documents that will be
publicly disclosed months later is senseless.
Finally, even if the competing interests were at equipoise, the importance of
this case must tip the balance in favor of disclosure. As noted, this is an important and
closely watched civil rights case. The public has a right to know exactly what is going
on at Harvard. Even if this were a commercial issue—as Harvard would like to portray
it—the public would have a right to know if the product is defective or if a fraud is
being perpetrated. Cf. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 113 F.R.D. 86, 87 (D.N.J. 1986)
(“Discovery may well reveal that a product is defective and its continued use
dangerous to the consuming public. The public disclosure of that information will
certainly embarrass that party and cause it financial loss. It is inconceivable to this
court that under such circumstances the public interest is not a vital factor to be
considered in determining whether to further conceal that information and whether
a court should be a party to that concealment.”); Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 271 (“We
are not blind to the fact that a corporation’s image or reputation may diminish by
being embroiled in litigation … over the safety of one of its products. That is the nature
of public litigation.”). The public interest in disclosure is equally (if not more directly)
implicated here. The Court’s evaluation of whether Harvard invidiously discriminates
against Asian-American applicants or whether it otherwise systematically violates
Title VI cannot be shrouded in secrecy. Harvard’s position should be rejected.
Harvard’s Request for a Blanket Sealing Order Is Improper.
No doubt recognizing the heavy burden it faces, Harvard attempts to end-run
the appropriate process by proposing that the Court issue a blanket sealing order
covering all summary judgment briefs and materials, and then determine later if the
documents were properly sealed. This approach is untenable and finds no case law
To begin, courts roundly reject the type of blanket sealing order Harvard seeks
here. “A blanket sealing order would rarely, if ever, be appropriate…. Until either
party demonstrates the existence of extraordinary circumstances or a compelling
need to seal from public view any particular portion of any specific document filed in
this case,” the Court cannot “depart from the governing strong presumption of open
access.” Landmark Am. Ins. Co. v. Magoo’s II, Inc., 2007 WL 3023265, at *1 (D. Conn.
Oct. 12, 2007); see Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 267, 270 (rejecting the “wholesale sealing
of the parties’ summary judgment motions and accompanying materials”). “Broad
and general findings by the trial court … are not sufficient to justify closure.” Matter
of New York Times Co., 828 F.2d 110, 116 (2d Cir. 1987). The Court can grant a motion
to seal only after engaging in “a careful document-by-document review of the
particular portions of the document that a party wishes to be kept under seal and
after considering whether the requested order is no broader than necessary to serve
the interests that require protection.” Landmark Am. Ins., 2007 WL 3023265, at *1.
Indeed, to date, Harvard has “cite[d] no case law and offer[ed] no argument
warranting what would be, in essence, an anticipatory and wholesale sealing of an
entire motion for summary judgment and all exhibits. Such a request is unduly broad
and inconsistent with established case law and the local rules of this court.” Thomas
v. Delmarva Power & Light Co., No. 15-cv-433, 2016 WL 9685172, at *2 (D. Md. Nov. 1,
2016); see id. at *1 n.1 (denying request that “plaintiff be required to file its response
and exhibits under seal, to the extent they contain designated confidential
information”); Florence v. Cenlar Fed. Sav. & Loan, No. 16-587, 2017 WL 1078637, at
*1 (D. Nev. Mar. 20, 2017) (“[T]he parties acknowledge that some of the documents
they have filed under seal are not confidential. This kind of blanket approach is
incompatible with the applicable standards established by controlling Ninth Circuit
authority.”). Such a blanket order is especially improper here because Harvard, for
good reason, has not identified any document that deserves to be sealed.
Nor does it matter at this stage that many of the documents Harvard wants to
seal were (presumably) subject to the protective order for discovery purposes. While
Harvard “might well consider many of those documents ‘confidential,’ and while a
substantial number of them may fall within the scope of the pre-trial discovery
protective order, those factors alone are not sufficient to warrant sealing the entire
summary judgment record in this case.” Mangosoft, 2005 WL 2203171, at *1; see also
Bradford & Bigelow, 109 F. Supp. 3d at 448 (“The ‘good cause’ that justifies an
umbrella protective order at the discovery stage (and allows such designations) is not
sufficient to meet the heightened standard to seal filings about dispositive motions or
trial .... Parties therefore may not rely solely on their designations under a discovery
protective order to support sealing motions; they must show that each document they
seek to seal should be sealed under the appropriate standard.”) (citations omitted).
That is why, in issuing the protective order, the Court made clear that it would not
dictate the standard for redacting material at summary judgment or dictate what (if
any) portions of the trial proceedings would be sealed. See Doc. 55 at 1; Hearing Tr.
at 26-27 (Sept. 6, 2016) (Harvard counsel agreeing). The Court understood that “[t]he
parties’ ability to label information ‘confidential’ in the discovery process was never
intended to transform litigation in a public forum into a proceeding where all trial
related motions, some of them potentially dispositive, are shrouded in secrecy with
intensive redactions and purported seal orders.” Gratz College v. Synergis Educ. Inc.,
No. 14-cv-06966, 2015 WL 9582743, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 30, 2015).
Nor does Harvard’s proposal to “seal now, review later” comport with the
common law or First Amendment. “[D]ocuments submitted to a court in support of
or in opposition to a motion for summary judgment are judicial documents to which
a presumption of immediate public access attaches under both the common law and
the First Amendment.” Lugosch, 435 F.3d at 126 (emphasis added). “Indeed, for the
presumptive right to be suspended or nonexistent until after the judge has ruled on a
motion, would be to impair the important interest in contemporaneous review by the
public of judicial performance.” In re Coordinated Pretrial Proceedings in Petroleum
Prod. Antitrust Litig., 101 F.R.D. 34, 43 (C.D. Cal. 1984). “The public’s interest in
monitoring the work of the courts is subverted when a court delays making a
determination on a sealing request while allowing litigation to proceed to judgment
in secret…. Because the public benefits attendant with open proceedings are
compromised by delayed disclosure of documents, … the public and press generally
have a contemporaneous right of access to court documents and proceedings when
the right applies.” Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 272.
Harvard’s proposal, in short, is “effectively a denial of any right to
contemporaneous access—where ‘[e]ach passing day may constitute a separate and
cognizable infringement of the First Amendment.’” Lugosch, 435 F.3d at 126 (quoting
Grove Fresh Distrib., Inc. v. Everfresh Juice Co., 24 F.3d 893, 897 (7th Cir. 1994)). Even
in cases where the parties agree to such a process and in which commercially
sensitive information is arguably at issue, courts have prioritized the importance of
public access. See, e.g., Mangosoft, 2005 WL 2203171, at *2. Not only would the public
be denied contemporaneous access, but those individuals and groups seeking to
participate in this case as amici curiae would effectively be prohibited from doing so,
as they would lack access to the briefs and record materials.
It is understandable that Harvard wants this case to be litigated in secret. The
allegations against it are serious and the evidence produced in discovery is powerful.
Yet that does not mean that the public should be kept in the dark. Quite the opposite.
The public has a right to know whether Harvard—an educational institution receiving
half a billion dollars a year from the federal government—is systematically violating
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Harvard’s broad and vague assertions that volumes of
documents in the record contain “sensitive business information” cannot override the
“presumption of immediate public access … under both the common law and the First
Amendment.” Lugosch, 435 F.3d at 126. Harvard’s request for a blanket sealing order
should be denied.
/s/ William S. Consovoy
William S. Consovoy
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