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Mears v. Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

October 7, 2014

SUSAN MEARS, JAMES WIEMER, and KRISTINA THOMPSON as Guardian ad Litem Of Minors A.W., T.W., and B.W., Plaintiffs,
v.
ATLANTIC SOUTHEAST AIRLINES, INC., (ASA) (now d/b/a EXPRESSJET); EXPRESSJET AIRLINES, INC., as successor corporation to ASA; and DELTA AIR LINES, INC., Defendant.

ORDER

JAMES C. FOX, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on the parties' Joint Motion to Seal [DE-66]. The motion proposes to seal the "Proposed Sealed Settlement Agreement" [DE-64] and "Proposed Sealed Settlement Documentation" [DE-65][1] in connection with the parties' Renewed Consent Motion for Court Approval of Settlement and Dismissal of Claims Against Defendants [DE-63]. Having reviewed the record, the court hereby ALLOWS the Joint Motion to Seal [DE-66]. The court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of that conclusion:

FINDINGS OF FACT

1. This case arises out of Atlantic Southeast Airlines/Delta Air Lines Flight No. 4939, conducted on August 13, 2010. The Plaintiffs are a family of five, two adults and their three minor children, who were passengers on Flight No. 4939 and allege they were injured as a result of negligence during the flight's encounters with severe turbulence.

2. The Plaintiffs originally filed their Complaint in Wake County Superior Court with the full names of the minors listed alongside the names of their parents in the case caption. (The North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure and Wake County Local Rules do not require use of initials for minors but correspondingly do not require filing of minor settlement agreements or supporting documentation.)

3. The Defendants removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and revised the case caption using only the minors' initials as required by Fed.R.Civ.P. 5.2. When filing their notice of removal, the Defendants filed the required copy of the Plaintiffs' state court complaint, which contains the full names of the minors, under seal in order to comply with Fed.R.Civ.P. 5.2. See Notice of Removal [DE-1] (Exhibit A to the Complaint).

4. The parties have used only the minors' initials in all subsequent filings, except one filing that was sealed by the court. Namely, Dr. Heiko, a treating provider for minor Plaintiff T. W., sent a letter and a CD containing copies of T.W.'s patient records to the court, and both Dr. Heiko's letter and the CD were placed under seal by the court sua sponte. See December 19, 2013 Order [DE-55].

5. Despite using only the initials of the minor Plaintiffs, the parties' filings do not adequately protect the identity of the minors because the minors' initials are listed following the full names of their parents. In addition, the Plaintiffs' state court complaint continues to exist as a matter of public record and identifies the minors by their full names.

6. In light of the extremely sensitive and private nature of the minors' alleged emotional injuries, the minors' parents and Guardian Ad Litem feel very strongly that the amount of payments set forth in the settlement agreement (which imply the severity and duration, or lack thereof, of the minors' alleged emotional injuries in comparison to one another and the adult Plaintiffs), as well as the supporting settlement documentation regarding their medical expenses, diagnoses, and prognoses required by Local Rule 17.1 (b), should be kept strictly confidential.

CONCLUSIONS OF LAW

A. Standards of Review for Motions to Seal

1. When considering a motion to seal, district courts must give the public notice of the request to seal and a reasonable opportunity to challenge the request. See In re Knight Pub'g, 743 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984). The filing of a litigant's motion to seal, such as the parties' Joint Motion to Seal [DE-66], is sufficient to provide public notice and opportunity to challenge the request to seal. See id.

2. The court must also consider less drastic alternatives to sealing, if any. See id.

3. Finally, the court must identify whether the First Amendment or common law rights of access apply and, if so, whether applicable counterbalancing privacy interests may ...


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