Judicial Council Adopts Rules Making Sealing of Court Documents Disfavored
Court rules adopted today by California’s Judicial Council will prohibit the sealing of any records filed in a court case merely upon an agreement of the litigants. Corporations often seek to hide key papers that would expose their fraudulent or dangerous practices by coaxing plaintiffs into signing such secrecy agreements in exchange for a favorable settlement.
Under the new rules supported by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and other consumer groups, sealing of documents would be disfavored by the courts. Only if the court determines that there is an overriding interest that outweighs the public’s right to access court records could records be sealed. Members of the public would also have the right to ask the court to unseal previously sealed documents.
“This is an important move towards preventing corporations seeking to hide evidence of their abusive practices from strong-arming consumer plaintiffs into stipulating away the public’s right to know about dangerous products or fraudulent acts that could seriously affect their safety and welfare,” stated Foundation staff attorney and Fair Justice Project organizer, Pamela Pressley “To ensure public access to all evidence of corporate abuses in lawsuits, however, these rules should also apply to out-of-court secret settlements and discovery materials. ”
FTCR had supported a stronger “Sunshine in the Courts” measure introduced in 1999, SB 1254 (Schiff), that would have extended to discovery materials and confidential settlement agreements. That bill was held in committee by its author in deference to the Judicial Council.
Currently, nine states have laws in place that ban or strictly limit confidentiality agreements in lawsuits, including Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.
The new rules will take effect January 1, 2001.