In Bower v. Sewanhaka Central High School et al, 2020 WL 6161256 (E.D.N.Y. Oct. 21, 2020) – a sexual harassment case – the court denied plaintiff’s motion to seal the case file.
This opinion is instructive regarding how courts evaluate and reconcile the competing interests – the public’s right to access vs. plaintiffs’ privacy – at play in this situation.
The court summarized the relevant “black letter” law as follows:
The public and the press have a ‘qualified First Amendment right to … access certain judicial documents.’ ” Lugosch v. Pyramid Co. of Onondaga, 435 F.3d 110, 120 (2d Cir. 2006) (quoting Hartford Courant Co. v. Pellegrino, 380 F.3d 83, 91 (2d Cir. 2004)). These documents include complaints, Bernstein v. Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP, 814 F.3d 132, 139-40 (2d Cir. 2016), and docket sheets, Hartford Courant Co., 380 F.3d at 93. Although judicial documents “may be kept under seal if … ‘higher values’ … so demand,” Lugosch, 435 F.3d at 124, such restrictions require “specific, on the record findings” that “closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest,” id. at 120 (quoting In re New York Times Co., 828 F.2d 110, 116 (2d Cir. 1987)). The “sealing of an entire case file” is a “last resort.” Doe v. Berg, No. 15-CV-9787 (RJS), 2016 WL 11597923, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 10, 2016) (quoting In re Platinum & Palladium Commodities Litig., 828 F. Supp. 2d 602, 603-04 (S.D.N.Y. 2011)); see Bernstein, 814 F.3d at 136, 140 (affirming denial of parties’ request to close a case “while leaving it permanently sealed,” after plaintiff was permitted to file the complaint under seal for 14 days and parties reached a settlement agreement within that time period); Smith v. New York Presbyterian Hosp., 254 F. App’x 68, 70 (2d Cir. 2007) (noting that “lawsuits are rarely litigated under seal” because “the law disfavors closed proceedings”).
Applying the law, the court held that “Plaintiff’s conclusory statement that the case consists of allegations of sexual harassment that are highly sensitive and uniquely private to the parties’ does not establish that sealing the case file is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest” and that “[t]he fact that a case involves allegations of sexual harassment cannot justify sealing the entire case file, in and of itself, because sexual harassment claims are regularly litigated publicly.” [Citations and internal quotation marks omitted.]