Should A Court Allow A Case To Disappear Entirely Because The Person Regrets Filing It?
from the public-records dept
We write about lots of nutty court cases around here, and semi-frequently, parties engaged in those lawsuits aren’t always happy about our coverage. Not too long ago, we received a series of emails and phone calls and more from an individual who was involved in some lawsuits that we covered. Without providing too many details at all, the individual in question made a pretty straightforward case that he or she absolutely regretted filing the lawsuits, and provided some additional information about why it had happened, while also noting that the Google searches on this person’s name were now linking to the few news stories that covered the lawsuit, including the court documents that we had posted. It was explained that these search results were making life difficult for this person who was trying to get his or her life back on track and believed that Google searches on the name were making it harder to find a job.
The story was compelling, and we were asked to remove our post as well as the links to the documents, something that we won’t do. However, there was one intriguing bit to the communication, telling us that the court in question had “sealed the case” and asking us to respect that decision. That seemed odd to us. We’ve certainly seen filings sealed. And even some instances where almost all of the details in a docket were done under seal, but the case would still exist. Usually, though, those were cases involving at least a semi-plausible claim of national security. This was a case where someone just regretted filing questionable lawsuits (for a good reason). Even more amazing, after searching through PACER, it appeared that the judge in question did not just seal documents in the case, but made the entire case disappear. This happened for at least three cases. They do not exist in the court’s electronic records system at all. It is as if the cases never happened at all.
This is not how the system is supposed to work. Public records are public records.
Through a lawyer, we reached out to the court directly to see if we could understand the decision to disappear the cases. An initial response was that it was done under local court rules. But when it was pointed out that the rules only allow for the sealing of certain documents, not the existence of the entire case, the court told us that it would answer no further questions because of the sealed nature of the case.
At this point, I’m somewhat stymied. Again, the individual in question has made a very credible case that the existence of these records is making it difficult for the person to move forward in life, and they truly regret the filings. They also have presented credible reasons for why the decision was made to file the cases in the first place. I honestly have no wish to further trouble this individual. I also will not delete our original post or the documents in question, because that, too, feels wrong. But we will not tell you who it is, and if you try to guess, you’re probably wrong.
But… I’m still quite concerned about a court totally disappearing public records. I know of the three specific cases involving this one individual that have disappeared from the docket. But I have no idea if this is a standard practice of the court, and if it’s made other cases disappear as well, without any public notice or explanation. The court says that it waited two weeks before sealing the dockets, in case anyone objected, but we had no way to know that this was even a possibility since it involved cases from a while back that we no longer follow. Some have suggested that we could go to court over this — and there is precedent supporting our position, such as Company Doe v. Public Citizen. But, at least that case felt like one worth fighting for. I have little interest in dragging this particular individual back through a court process.
But, at the same time, I’m quite concerned about the idea that courts may be magically making dockets disappear, and know of no way to find out how often this practice is happening. Thus, I’m posting this, in part, to see what our readers think, and if there are other options out there on how to deal with these kinds of situations. I recognize that some will argue that we should reveal the specifics here, and that whoever filed the cases should live with that decision. And I’m sympathetic to that argument, but there are times when other arguments can make sense as well. So for this post, we will not be sharing that info. If we come across other such cases where the details are different, the calculus may be different as well.