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Arnold v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 29, 2019

ANNIE ARNOLD, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRY F. MOORER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Under Seal Portions of Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Class Certification, Appointment of Class Representatives, and Appointment of Class Counsel (Doc. 86); Plaintiff's Brief Filed Pursuant to the Court's May 2, 2019 Order (Doc. 95); and Defendant's Memorandum In Response to Plaintiff's Motion to Seal (Doc. 94) . For the reasons set out below, Plaintiff's motion to seal is GRANTED as modified by Docs. 94 and 95 and this Order; Plaintiff's brief is construed as a motion to re-file Exhibits B and V to Plaintiff's motion for class certification and is GRANTED; Defendant's memorandum is construed as a motion to seal and is GRANTED to the extent set out below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 22, 2019, Plaintiff Annie Arnold (“Arnold” or “Plaintiff”) filed a Motion for Class Certification, Appointment of Class Representatives, and Appointment of Class Counsel and an accompanying Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Class Certification, Appointment of Class Representatives, and Appointment of Class Counsel. Docs. 87, 88. In tandem with that, Arnold filed a Motion for Leave to File Under Seal Portions of Memorandum in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Class Certification, Appointment of Class Representatives, and Appointment of Class Counsel. Doc. 86. The motion for class certification and accompanying memorandum were filed under seal pending the Court's ruling on her motion to seal.

         In her original motion to seal, which was unopposed, Plaintiff sought to file under seal any exhibits filed in support of her motion for class certification that were designated by the defendant, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (“State Farm” or “Defendant”), as “Confidential” or would reveal information designated as confidential under the terms of a Consent Order adopted and incorporated into the Scheduling Order on October 13, 2017.[1] Docs. 50 and 51. Arnold did not specify which documents she wished sealed, but she filed under seal the following exhibits: B, H, T, V, X, Y, Z, AA, BB, CC, and EE. She also filed her memorandum in support of the motion for class certification under seal and sought leave to redact the relevant portions of the memorandum accordingly.[2]

         However, the consent order merely guards against disclosure of confidential information exchanged by the parties during discovery; information produced in discovery is not subject to the common-law right of access. See Chicago Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1311-12 (11th Cir. 2001); Romero v. Drummond Co., Inc., 480 F.3d 1234, 1245 (11th Cir. 2007). The consent order does not transfer to the parties the Court's responsibility for protecting the public's right to access judicial records of substantive proceedings. See, e.g., Romero, 480 F.3d at 1247. Accordingly, the parties were directed to confer regarding the exhibits Plaintiff sought to seal and to file briefs (1) indicating which materials each party wishes to be sealed and/or redacted from the motion for class certification and accompanying memorandum; (2) asserting an argument for sealing each, addressing the relevant factors; and (3) indicating whether each request is unopposed. See Doc. 91. Deadlines for responding to the motion for class certification were stayed and the relevant documents have been maintained under seal pending a ruling on the matter. Accordingly, the parties indicate they have conferred, and each has submitted the requested brief indicating which documents they seek to file under seal. Docs. 94, 95.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “The operations of courts and the judicial conduct of judges are matters of utmost public concern.” Landmark Commc'ns, Inc. v. Virginia, 435 U.S. 829, 839, 98 S.Ct. 1535, 1541, 56 L.Ed.2d 1 (1978). “[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, 480 F.3d at 1245 (quoting Chicago Tribune Co., 263 F.3d at 1311). “What happens in the halls of government is presumptively public business. Judges deliberate in private, but issue public decisions after public arguments based on public records.” Union Oil Co. of Ca. v. Leavell, 220 F.3d 562, 568 (7th Cir. 2000). The common-law right of access favors access to judicial records and includes “the right to inspect and copy public records and documents.” Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1311. However, the right is not absolute. Id. It does not apply to discovery, and where it does apply, it may be overcome by a showing of good cause. Romero, 480 F.3d at 1245.

         The good cause standard “requires the district court to balance the party's interest in obtaining access against the other party's interest in keeping the information confidential.” Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1313. When considering that balancing test, the Romero Court stated as follows:

In balancing the public interest in accessing court documents against a party's interest in keeping the information confidential, 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 public concerns, and the availability of a less onerous alternative to sealing the documents.

Romero, 480 F.3d at 1246. “Discovery material filed in connection with pretrial motions that require judicial resolution of the merits is subject to the common-law right.” Chicago Tribune Co., 263 F.3d at 1312. The Court should inform its decision whether to seal a judicial record by a “‘sensitive appreciation of the circumstances that led to ... [the] production [of the particular document in question].'” Chicago Tribune Co., 263 F.3d at 1311 (quoting Nixon v. Warner Comm., Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 598, 602-02, 98 S.Ct. 1306, 1312, 1314-15, 55 L.Ed.2d 570 (1978)).

         “[T]he judge is the primary representative of the public interest in the judicial process and is duty-bound therefore to review any request to seal the record (or part of it). He may not rubber stamp a stipulation to seal the record.” Citizens First Nat'l Bank of Princeton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 178 F.3d 943, 945 (7th Cir. 1999) (citations omitted). Thus, because the Court is obligated to protect the public's right to access judicial records, it is not bound by the parties' stipulation to seal the documentary record. See, e.g., Romero, 480 F.3d at 1247 (“[T]hat both parties want to seal court documents ‘is immaterial' to the public right of access.”) (quoting Brown v. Advantage Eng'g, Inc., 960 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir. 1992)).

         III. PLAINTIFF'S BRIEF - Exhibits B and V (Doc. 89-2; Docs. 89-22/90-7)[3]

         In her brief, Arnold indicates that she does not seek, herself, to file any documents under seal. Doc. 95. She stated that she sought to do so in her previous motion primarily to adhere to the constrains of the consent order adopted by the Court (Docs. 50, 51, 53) regarding items designated by State Farm as “Confidential.” Doc. 95. Thus, Arnold makes no argument in her brief for placing State Farm's “Confidential” documents under seal.

         Arnold also indicates, however, that she wishes to refile Exhibits B and V in order to limit the scope of the documents to only the portions relevant to the motion for class certification. She explains that she filed the exhibits-transcripts of her deposition and the deposition of proposed class representative Tina Daniel-in their entirety with her motion for class certification, intending to file them under seal because they contain references to confidential medical and financial information. Arnold indicates that the parties have conferred and have agreed to narrow the scope of materials they wish to be placed under seal. Consequently, rather than move to seal Exhibits B and V, Arnold seeks to ...


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