Siefert et al v. Hamilton County/ Hamilton County Board of Commissioners/ Hamilton County Department of Job and Family Services et al
ORDER Granting in Part and Denying in Part 2 Plaintiff's Motion to File the Complaint (Doc. 1) and All Case Documents Under Seal. Signed by Judge Timothy S. Black on 9/15/17. (gs)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO
JOSEPH SIEFERT, et al.,
BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, et al.,
Case No. 1:17-cv-511
Judge Timothy S. Black
ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART
PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO FILE THE COMPLAINT (Doc. 1)
AND ALL CASE DOCUMENTS UNDER SEAL (Doc. 2)
This civil action is before the Court regarding Plaintiff’s motion to file the
complaint and all other case documents under seal. (Doc. 2). Plaintiff states two general
reasons for sealing the filings in this case: avoiding emotional harm to the Plaintiffs that
would result from the public disclosure of the allegations in the complaint, and avoiding
the harm from public disclosure of the sensitive medical information of a minor.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A district court’s decision to seal court records is reviewed for an abuse of
discretion. Klingenberg v. Fed. Home Loan Mortg. Co., 658 Fed. Appx. 202, 207 (6th
Cir. 2016) (citing Shane Grp. Inc. v. Blue Cross Blue Shield, 825 F.3d 299, 306 (6th Cir.
2016)). However, “the district court’s decision is not accorded the deference that
standard normally brings.” Id.
There is a “stark” difference between, on one hand, the propriety of allowing
litigants to exchange documents in secret, and on the other, allowing litigants to shield
those documents which are ultimately relied on in the Court’s adjudication from public
view. See Shane Grp., 825 F.3d at 305. Parties are typically entitled to a “protective
order” limiting disclosure of documents in discovery upon a mere showing of good cause.
Id. However, “very different considerations apply” when these materials are filed in the
public record. Id.
Unlike information merely exchanged between the parties, the public has a strong
interest in obtaining the information contained in the court record. Id. Accordingly, the
courts have long recognized a “strong presumption in favor of openness” of court
records. Id. (quoting Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. F.T.C., 710 F.2d 1165, 1180
(6th Cir. 1983)).
Three times in the past year the Sixth Circuit has explained that a party moving to
seal court records must overcome a significant burden. See Shane Grp., 825 F.3d at 30506; Klingenberg, 658 Fed. Appx. at 207-08; Rudd Equip. Co. v. John Deere Constr. &
Forestry Co., 834 F.3d 589, 593-96 (6th Cir. 2016). According to the Sixth Circuit:
The burden of overcoming that presumption [of openness] is borne by the
party that seeks to seal them. In re Cendant Corp., 260 F.3d 183, 194 (3d
Cir. 2001). The burden is a heavy one: “Only the most compelling reasons
can justify the non-disclosure of judicial records.” In re Knoxville NewsSentinel Co., 723 F.2d 470, 476 (6th Cir. 1983). . . . And even where a
party can show a compelling reason why certain documents or portions
thereof should be sealed, the seal itself must be narrowly tailored to serve
that reason. See, e.g., Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court of California,
Riverside Cnty., 464 U.S. 501, 509-11, 104 S. Ct. 819, 78 L. Ed. 2d 629
(1984). The proponent of sealing therefore must “analyze in detail,
document by document, the propriety of secrecy, providing reasons and
legal citations.” Baxter, 297 F.3d at 548.
Shane Grp., 825 F.3d at 305-06.
A movant’s obligation to provide compelling reasons justifying the seal exists
even if the parties themselves agree the filings should be sealed. See Rudd Equip., 834
F.3d at 595 (noting the parties “could not have waived the public’s First Amendment and
common law right of access to court filings”) (citation omitted); see also In re Knoxville
News-Sentinel Co., 723 F.2d 470, 475 (6th Cir. 1983) (in reviewing a motion to seal, the
district court has “an obligation to consider the rights of the public”). Simply put, this
Court has an obligation to keep its records open for public inspection, and that obligation
is not conditioned upon the desires of the parties to the case. Shane Grp., 825 F.3d at
A district court which chooses to seal court records must set forth specific findings
and conclusions “which justify nondisclosure to the public.” Id. at 306 (quoting Brown &
Williamson, 710 F.2d at 1176). A court’s failure to set forth reasons explaining why the
interests in support of nondisclosure are compelling, why the interests supporting access
are less so, and why the seal itself is no broader than necessary is grounds to vacate an
order to seal. Id.
Plaintiff’s motion requests that “this Court order their complaint and all other case
documents to be filed under seal.” (Doc. 2, at 4). As outlined above, the Sixth Circuit
has clearly held that generalized, sweeping Orders sealing cases are inappropriate and
that any Order sealing part of the record must give compelling reasons for the sealing of
each affected document. See supra Part II. Plaintiff’s motion lists no specific document
to be sealed other than the complaint, and, accordingly, cannot give detailed reasons for
the sealing of any documents yet to be filed. Therefore, insofar as Plaintiff’s motion
requests the sealing of any future documents, the motion is denied in that regard.
The Court has carefully reviewed both the complaint and Plaintiff’s motion to
evaluate the merits of allowing the complaint to be filed under seal. Based upon the
highly sensitive nature of the allegations contained in the complaint, which include many
details intimately related to medical care received by a minor, the Court finds that there is
significant justification for preventing disclosure of the complaint to the public.
Moreover, at this time, the public’s interest in access is less compelling than the rationale
to seal, as there is no compelling need for immediate public access to the complaint; and,
further, the seal is narrowly tailored. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s request to seal the
complaint, at this point in the litigation, is meritorious; and, therefore, Plaintiff’s motion
to file under seal shall be granted, but only with respect to the complaint.
The Court recognizes that this case likely promises to generate future filings that
may merit this Court allowing them to be filed under seal. Therefore, any party intending
to make any filing under seal, i.e., that contains sensitive information pertaining to a
minor, shall first file a motion to file documents under seal outlining, specifically and
thoroughly, the rationale for a sealed filing. All motions to file documents under seal
may themselves be filed under seal without need for further Court approval. When the
sealed motion to file documents under seal is filed, the filing party should also
contemporaneously email the documents in question to the Court using chambers email
(firstname.lastname@example.org). The Court will then determine whether sealing is
warranted on a document by document basis, after reviewing the motion to seal and the
documents in question.
Accordingly, for the reasons stated above, Plaintiff’s motion to file the complaint
and all case documents under seal (Doc. 2) is GRANTED IN PART only. The Clerk is
instructed to lift the seal on this case as a whole and to place the complaint (Doc. 1) under
seal. Any party wishing to make further filings in this case under seal must first file a
comprehensive sealed motion 1 requesting permission to seal and providing specific
justification for sealing the filings in question in accordance with the law and the
procedure outlined above, see supra Part III (including contemporaneously emailing to
the Court the documents at issue).
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Timothy S. Black
United States District Judge
All motions to file documents under seal may themselves be filed under seal without
need for further Court approval.
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