Court Rejects Plaintiff's Attempt To Seal His Entire Lawsuit Against A Website That Publishes Court Documents
from the burial-failure dept
Eugene Volokh has come across another attempt by a litigant to bury his own court proceedings. This isn’t a malicious or underhanded attempt to remove embarrassing info from the court system in order to… say… scrub a client’s reputation. This is simply a pro se litigant perhaps misunderstanding what he was getting into when he decided to start filing lawsuits.
As Volokh points out, knowing very little about the court system you’re engaging with as your own lawyer tends to result in very strange requests.
Trial courts sometimes do the darndest things, including in cases brought by pro se plaintiffs. While litigating pro se is often a handicap, it’s sometimes an advantage: pro se litigants often don’t know what’s impossible, so they ask for it—and sometimes get it.
In this case, the plaintiff asked for pretty much every public document his lawsuit had created to be sealed. He did this with a letter to the court [PDF] that closes with:
Confidential Notice: This letter and the things contained herein are confidential information and are not to be copied, shared, or distributed by any source.
This letter was (of course) added to the docket and made accessible, just like everything else in his 2017 lawsuit against his former school. The letter asks for the judgment to not be published by the court and the only copies distributed to him and the defendant. He also wanted the defendant to be blocked from publishing the judgment or sharing it “with anyone or website or other conduit.”
This was construed as a motion to seal. Volokh spotted it and filed a motion to intervene to argue on behalf of the public’s right to access documents created by public courts. The natural course of things — the generation of documents by courts that then end up on third-party websites — resulted in a second lawsuit from the same plaintiff. This was filed against Justia, a site that publishes thousands of court documents.
Volokh’s intervention is noted by the court, which comes to the conclusion that it probably would have reached anyway. But, as Volokh noted earlier, sometimes trial courts head to left field and grant some really strange stuff to plaintiffs. Hence the outside input meant to steer the court back in the direction of the presumption of openness.
The decision [PDF] here hits all the right notes. Documents filed in public courts are public. Not wanting them to be public is understandable in some cases, but that’s not the standard the court uses when dealing with motions to seal. Even for pro se plaintiffs, who are given as much leeway as possible by courts, the standards are higher than can be met by the plaintiff’s letter.
The party seeking to seal must provide “legitimate public or private reasons for the documents to be kept from the public” and must identify “a clearly defined and serious injury that would result if the motion is not granted.” Celgene Corp. v. Abrika Pharm., Inc., 2007 WL 1456156 at 5 (D.N.J. May 17, 2007). Plaintiffs request to seal the Appellate Division’s Opinion has numerous deficiencies:
1. He has not filed any affidavit, declaration, certification, or other document along with his request.
2. He has not presented any compelling reason that would justify the Court granting the request.
3. He has not suggested any lesser restrictive measures or why one is not available.
4. He has not set forth a significant reason that would warrant sealing these documents and restricting public access.
5. Plaintiff merely expresses his wish that the order on his motion to dismiss not be “reported, copied, distributed, shared, or by any other means used by anyone or any website.” (ECF No. 26).
6. Plaintiff has failed to establish what adverse consequences would occur, unless sealing has occurred.
On top of this denial, the court also dismisses the lawsuit against Justia. And again, the ruling rests on court system’s presumption of openness.
The amended complaint is substantively meritless, as was the original complaint. Plaintiff is essentially attempting to seal the Appellate Division’s Opinion, which — like federal court documents — are open to the public. N.J. Ct. R. 1:38-1. There is a heightened public interest in disclosure of materials that are filed within the Courts, which outweighs private interests in confidentiality, as the Courts are funded by the public and in general judicial proceedings are not done in secret.
And, finally, the court addresses the claims the plaintiff actually made in his lawsuit against Justia. And they’re as creative as they are unsupported.
[T]here is no cognizable legal theory to support the allegations set forth herein. The documents alleged to have been stolen and embezzled are public records with access for the public. In addition, even assuming that the records were not public, there are no allegations to support a claim for theft or embezzlement — the Appellate Division’s Opinion is not Plaintiff’s personal property.
Away goes the lawsuit in a brief opinion that’s as public as everything else in the case.
I’m sure it sucks for the plaintiff to be shot down again. And in public. (Again.) But that’s how the system works. The plaintiff probably should have quit when he was behind — after his failed attempt to seal documents from his first lawsuit. As courts have pointed out in the past, the best way to keep your name out of court documents is to stop filing lawsuits.