In a resounding victory for both the First Amendment right of access to court records and for consumers, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held today in Company Doe v. Public Citizen that a district court erred in sealing records and allowing the use of a pseudonym in a challenge to the inclusion of a product safety report in a federal consumer product safety database. The district court had adjudicated the case entirely in secret, with secret facts, secret proceedings and a secret plaintiff; in ordering today that the record of the litigation be unsealed and the name of the company revealed, the Fourth Circuit sent a strong message disapproving of secret litigation.
By way of background, in the fall of 2011, a company sued the Consumer Product Safety Commission to keep a complaint about one of the company's product out of the terrific product safety database the CPSC created to help consumers learn about product hazards, pursuant to the Consumer Product Safety Information Act. When it filed its suit, the company also moved to seal the case and proceed under a pseudonym. A year later, the district court granted the seal and pseudonym, along with summary judgment for the company; as it turns out, the court had been holding hearings with no public knowledge or participation for months. The court's 73-page redacted decision contains large blocks of blacked-out text that at times make it nearly unreadable. (Sample analysis from the opinion: “[T]he report states that [REDACTED]. But the report does not indicate how [REDACTED] is connected to [REDACTED].”) Public Citizen, along with our allies Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports), appealed.
Today's unanimous decision from the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court and held that:
–Injury to corporate reputation is not enough to justify sealing court records under the First Amendment;
-The right to exclude a report from the CPSC database doesn’t include the right to litigate the entire matter in secret;
-Judicial opinions, summary judgment materials and docket sheets are protected by the First Amendment right of access to courts;
-Permitting a company to use a pseudonym to challenge the inclusion of a report in the CPSC database was an abuse of discretion in light of the public interest in the database; and
-District courts must act expeditiously on sealing requests.
Not only will the decision stand as a bulwark against the type of secret litigation that occurred in this case, it will also help ensure the efficacy of the CPSC database by preventing companies from litigating challenges to individual CPSC reports through years of secret litigation — a practice that, if permitted, would have undermined the goal of providing timely information to consumers through the database.
The public will learn the identity of Company Doe once the case is sent back to district court.