United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.
Crop Protection, LLC has sued four affiliated companies,
denominated collectively as Willowood, claiming patent and
copyright infringement. The Court considers here five motions
to seal exhibits filed in connection with evidentiary and
summary judgment motions. Having resolved those evidentiary
and summary judgment motions, Docs. 141, 143, 150, and having
considered the record, the Court will grant in part, deny in
part, and otherwise defer these motions to seal.
courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect
and copy . . . judicial records and documents.”
Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589,
597 (1978). This right of public access to judicial records
derives from the First Amendment and the common law. Va.
Dep't of State Police v. Wash. Post, 386 F.3d 567,
575 (4th Cir. 2004). When a party asks to seal judicial
records, the court “must determine the source of the
right of access with respect to each document, ” and
then “weigh the competing interests at stake.”
Id. at 576 (quoting Stone v. Univ. of Md. Med.
Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 178, 181 (4th Cir. 1988)). The
Court must also (1) give the public notice and a reasonable
opportunity to challenge the request to seal; (2)
“consider less drastic alternatives to sealing;”
and (3) if it decides to seal, make specific findings and
state the reasons for its decision to seal over the
alternatives. Id. (citing Stone, 855 F.2d
at 181); Rushford v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 846
F.2d 249, 253-54 (4th Cir. 1988).
common law presumption in favor of access attaches to all
judicial records and documents, ” but the “First
Amendment guarantee of access has been extended only to
particular judicial records and documents.”
Stone, 855 F.2d at 180 (citations omitted). Judicial
records are “documents filed with the court . . .
[that] play a role in the adjudicative process, or adjudicate
substantive rights.” In re Application of U.S. for
an Order Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 2703(D), 707 F.3d
283, 290 (4th Cir. 2013) (collecting cases). To the extent
the court does not rely on a document to reach its decision,
the document is not a judicial record and no right of access
applies. Hunter v. Town of Mocksville, 961 F.Supp.2d
803, 806 (M.D. N.C. 2013) (citing In re Application,
707 F.3d at 290-91); see United States v. Moussaoui,
65 F.App'x 881, 889 (4th Cir. 2003) (observing some
court-filed documents “may not qualify as
‘judicial records' at all”).
First Amendment right of access applies to judicial records
when (1) “the place and process have historically been
open to the press and general public, ” and when (2)
“public access plays a significant positive role in the
functioning of the particular process in question.”
In re Application, 707 F.3d at 291 (quotation
omitted). Because the public has a right to attend trials and
oversee the courts, the First Amendment protects the
public's right to access “the evidence and records
filed in connection with summary judgment proceedings.”
E.g., Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246,
267 (4th Cir. 2014).
derived from the common law or the First Amendment, the
public's right of access “may be abrogated only in
unusual circumstances.” Stone, 855 F.2d at
182. The party seeking to limit public access bears the
burden to show that sealing is appropriate.
Rushford, 846 F.2d at 253; see Pub.
Citizen, 749 F.3d at 272. To overcome the common law
presumption of access, the party seeking to seal documents
must show “a significant countervailing
interest…that outweighs the public's interest in
openness.” See In re Application, 707 F.3d at
293 (citation omitted); Cochran v. Volvo Grp. N. Am.,
LLC, 931 F.Supp.2d 725, 729 (M.D. N.C. 2013). The First
Amendment right of access to judicial records “yields
only in the existence of a ‘compelling governmental
interest . . . that is narrowly tailored to serve that
interest.'” In re Application, 707 F.3d at
290 (quoting Va. Dept. of State Police, 386 F.3d at
party seeking to seal must provide specific reasons to
support its position. Va. Dep't of State Police,
386 F.3d at 575; Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478
U.S. 1, 15 (1986) (holding that “[t]he First
Amendment right of access cannot be overcome by [a]
conclusory assertion”). Claims of confidentiality for
court filings cannot be made indiscriminately and without
evidentiary support. Bayer CropSci. Inc. v. Syngenta Crop
Prot., LLC, No. 13-CV-316, 2013 WL 12137000, at *1 (M.D.
N.C. Dec. 12, 2013); accord GoDaddy.com LLC v. RPost
Commc'ns Ltd, No. CV-14-00126, 2016 WL 1158851, at
*2 (D. Ariz. 2016) (“[B]road allegations of harm,
unsubstantiated by specific examples of articulated reasoning
is [sic] not enough to overcome the strong presumption in
favor of public access.” (quotation omitted)).
Statements in a brief are not evidence and are insufficient
to justify a motion to seal. Cochran, 931 F.Supp.2d
at 730 (citing INS v. Phinpathya, 464 U.S. 183, 188
information that might harm a litigant's competitive
standing” may be a sufficient interest to overcome both
the common law and First Amendment rights of access.
Nixon, 435 U.S. at 598 (holding that “the
common-law right of inspection has bowed before the power of
a court to insure that its records” do not serve
“as sources of business information that might harm a
litigant's competitive standing”); see also
Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 269 (indicating in dicta that
a company's “strong interest in preserving the
confidentiality of its proprietary and trade-secret
information . . . may justify partial sealing of court
Waived or Withdrawn Claims
Local Rules require that a party filing documents designated
by another party as confidential must file a motion to seal.
LR 5.4(c). The party claiming confidentiality must then file
a brief in support of sealing. LR 5.4(d). Failure to file
such a brief will ordinarily result in denial of the motion
to seal. Id.
to this rule, Syngenta filed a motion to seal materials that
it submitted in opposition to Willowood's motion for
summary judgment and that Willowood had designated as
confidential. Doc. 111. Willowood did not file a brief in
support of the motion to seal as required by the local rules.
See LR 5.4(d). There is nothing in the record to
support Willowood's claim of confidentiality for these
two documents -portions of Mr. Wu's deposition
excerpts and portions of Syngenta's
brief. Therefore, the Court will deny the motion,
Doc. 111, as to Mr. Wu's deposition excerpts and the
portions of Syngenta's brief.
Willowood's behalf, Syngenta filed another motion to seal
some of the exhibits filed with its motion for partial
summary judgment and its motion to exclude certain expert
opinions. Doc. 91. In the brief filed in support of its
confidentiality claims, Willowood identified several
documents that it no longer contends should be
sealed. See Doc. 100 at 2. These documents will
therefore be unsealed. One of these documents closely matches
the contents of another document that Willowood elsewhere
seeks to seal. Because the information will be publicly
available, there is no reason to seal the same information in
another document. See In re Knight Publ'g Co.,
743 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984). The Court will deny the
motion to seal, Doc. 91, as to these documents.
Court has complied with the notice requirements set forth in
Stone and Rushford. Syngenta and Willowood
filed these motions to seal between October and December
2016. See Docs. 89, 117. Neither party nor any other
entity has objected to any of the motions to seal since they
were filed last year. See Mears v. Atl. Se. Airlines,
Inc., No. 5:12-CV-613-F, 2014 WL 5018907, at *2 (E.D.
N.C. Oct. 7, 2014) (“The filing of a litigant's
motion to seal . . . is sufficient to provide public notice
and opportunity to challenge the request to seal.”
Classification of Documents
parties seek to seal several exhibits on which the Court did not
rely to determine the relevant evidentiary and summary
judgment motions. Because the Court did not rely on these
exhibits, they were not part of the adjudicative process.
Therefore, these exhibits are not judicial records and the
public does not have a right to access them. Hunter,
961 F.Supp.2d at 806 (citing In re Application, 707
F.3d at 290-9 1); see also Moussaoui, 65 F.
App'x at 889.
Court considered publicly filed, redacted versions of
Willowood's Answers and Objections to Syngenta's
Fourth Set of Interrogatories, Doc. 96-8, and of Mr.
Jarosz's deposition excerpts, Doc. 96-40, and did not
rely on the sealed, unredacted versions. Thus, the sealed
versions are not judicial records and no right of access
Court will therefore grant the motion to seal, Doc. 91, as to
these documents, identified by CM-ECF docket number in
footnotes 6 and 7.
remaining documents at issue were submitted in connection
with the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment,
Docs. 87, 93, and with Syngenta's motions to exclude
certain expert opinions. Doc. 90. Because the Court considered
these materials in deciding those motions, the documents
“play[ed] a role in the adjudicative process” and
therefore are judicial records. In re Application,
707 F.3d at 290.
First Amendment right of access applies to the documents that
the Court considered in deciding the parties' cross
motions for summary judgment. See Pub. Citizen, 749
F.3d at 267. At a minimum, the common law right of access
applies to the documents that the Court considered in
deciding the motion to exclude because they are judicial
noted supra, the party seeking to limit public
access bears the burden to show that sealing is appropriate.
Syngenta and Willowood fail to meet their burden under even
the less demanding common law standards. Neither party has
offered affidavits from knowledgeable witnesses or other
evidence that the information they seek to seal is
confidential. Instead, the litigants provide only
broad assertions of confidentiality in briefs and motions
signed by counsel. These assertions by counsel do not
identify which documents contain what kind of confidential
information. These unsupported and non-specific
assertions of confidential business information and financial
harm are insufficient to meet the moving party's burden
to show the significant countervailing interest required to
overcome the common law right of access, much less the First
Amendment right of access.
its review of each document to determine the source of the
right of access, the Court also considered the content of the
documents. For many of the documents, the Court saw nothing
that appears confidential. In the absence of evidence, the
Court will deny the motions as to these
contrast, some documents facially appear highly likely to
contain sensitive business information. The Court
could deny the motion as to these documents as well, as it is
not the Court's job to do the work a litigant failed to
do and litigants are not entitled to a
second chance, especially when the law is well-established.
See supra pp. 3-4. In the exercise of its
discretion, however, the Court will give Syngenta and
Willowood seven days to supplement the evidentiary record for
the documents listed in footnote 16.
these particular documents, the party seeking to limit public
access may submit affidavits to explicitly identify the
specific document, or information in a document, that it
seeks to seal and to provide a specific explanation of the
facts supporting the motion to seal for each document or
category of documents. Any affidavit must specifically
identify the relevant documents by description, by the ECF
docket number assigned to the sealed document, and by the ECF
docket number ...