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Syngenta Crop. Protection, LLC v. Willowood, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 4, 2017

SYNGENTA CROP PROTECTION, LLC, Plaintiff,
v.
WILLOWOOD, LLC,, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.

         Syngenta 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.

         I. Background

         “[T]he 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).

         “[T]he 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”).

         The 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).

         Whether 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 575).

         The 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 n.6 (1984)).

         “[B]usiness 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 records.”)

         II. Waived or Withdrawn Claims

         The 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.

         Pursuant 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[1] and portions of Syngenta's brief.[2] Therefore, the Court will deny the motion, Doc. 111, as to Mr. Wu's deposition excerpts and the portions of Syngenta's brief.

         On 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[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

         III. Notice

         The 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.” (citation omitted)).

         IV. Classification of Documents

         a. Not Judicial Records

         The parties seek to seal several exhibits[6] 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.

         The 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.[7] Thus, the sealed versions are not judicial records and no right of access applies.

         The 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.

         b. Judicial Records

         The remaining documents at issue were submitted in connection with the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, [8] Docs. 87, 93, and with Syngenta's motions to exclude certain expert opinions.[9] 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.

         c. Analysis

         The First Amendment right of access applies to the documents that the Court considered in deciding the parties' cross motions for summary judgment.[10] 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 records.[11]

         As 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.[12] Instead, the litigants provide only broad assertions of confidentiality in briefs and motions signed by counsel.[13] These assertions by counsel do not identify which documents contain what kind of confidential information.[14] 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.

         During 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 documents.[15]

         In contrast, some documents facially appear highly likely to contain sensitive business information.[16] 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[17] 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.

         As to 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 ...


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