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In re NC Swine Farm Nuisance Litigation

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

May 25, 2017

IN RE: NC SWINE FARM NUISANCE LITIGATION THIS DOCUMENT RELATES TO: McKiver
v.
Murphy-Brown LLC, No. 7:14-CV-180-BR McGowan
v.
Murphy-Brown LLC, No. 7:14-CV-182-BR Anderson
v.
Murphy-Brown LLC, No. 7:14-CV-183-BR Artis
v.
Murphy-Brown LLC, No. 7:14-CV-237-BR

          ORDER

          W. Earl Britt Senior U.S. District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on defendant Murphy-Brown LLC's (“defendant”) motion for judgment on the pleadings, (DE # 168), and related motions to seal, (DE ## 171, 212). The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The twenty-six cases comprising this litigation concern swine farm operations in eastern North Carolina. In each case, plaintiffs, individuals who live in close proximity to specified farms, seek to recover monetary damages for nuisance and negligence. Defendant owns all the swine on the farms. To date, more detailed discovery has been conducted in five “Discovery Pool Cases, ” of which the four above-captioned cases are part. With regard to the four cases at issue here, defendant does not own the farms themselves. Rather, defendant contracts with the landowners, who are not named as parties in the cases, to raise its swine. According to plaintiffs, as a result of the swine farm operations, they have been exposed to, among other things, offensive odors, swarms of flies and other insects, dead swine, and large trucks carrying swine back and forth on the roads near their homes, on a recurring basis. Plaintiffs allege that defendant has been directly involved in the operations of the swine farms and has exercised detailed control over those operations such that defendant is responsible for the nuisance. They further allege that defendant was negligent in its ownership, maintenance, and control of its swine.

         Defendant moves for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) based on the failure to join the landowners as necessary and indispensable parties. It also moves to seal documents that it and plaintiffs submitted in support of their respective positions on the motion for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiffs oppose defendant's motions.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Motions to Seal

         Public access to documents filed with the court arises from two sources: the First Amendment and the common law. United States v. Appelbaum, 707 F.3d 283, 290 (4th Cir. 2013). “For a right of access to a document to exist under either the First Amendment or the common law, the document must be a ‘judicial record.'” Id. (citation omitted). “Judicial records” include not only orders filed by the court but also documents filed with the court that “play a role in the adjudicative process . . . .” Id. However, “the mere filing of a document with the court does not render the document judicial.” In re Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., Nos. 94-2254, 94-2341, 1995 WL 541623, at *4 (4th Cir. Sept. 13, 1995) (citing United States v. Amodeo, 44 F.3d 141, 145 (2d Cir. 1995)). With these principles in mind, the court proceeds to consider whether the documents at issue play a role in the adjudicative process.

         In its initial motion to seal, defendant requests that its Exhibit 4, filed with its memorandum in support of the motion for judgment on the pleadings, be filed under seal. That exhibit consists of the contracts between defendant and the landowners of the farms at issue. Defendant cites to the contracts in support of the following statements in its memorandum:

Pursuant to these contracts, the landowners are responsible for growing Murphy-Brown's swine and operating and maintaining the facilities at which the swine are grown. This includes an obligation to ensure that the farms comply with existing laws and to control any odors emanating from the farms. The landowners are entitled to monetary compensation in return.

(Def.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Pleadings, DE # 169, at 11 (citing Def.'s Ex. 4, DE # 170, at 3-4, 4, 19-21).)

         In response to defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiffs provisionally filed under seal an unredacted version of their memorandum and Exhibits 4-8 thereto. They contemporaneously filed a public version of the memorandum, redacting those portions that quote from or identify information in defendant's Exhibit 4 and plaintiffs' Exhibits 4-8. Defendant then filed its second motion to seal. It requests that the following documents contained in plaintiffs' exhibits be filed under seal: (1) defendant's Off-Site Finisher Manual (the entirety of Exhibits 4-6); (2) portions of defendant's contracts with the landowners (within Exhibit 8); (3) correspondence between defendant and the landowners (within Exhibit 8); and, (4) defendant's site visit checklists generated from audit of the landowners' farms (within Exhibit 8).[1] Plaintiff relies on these documents to support its allegation that defendant exercises significant control over the swine operations at issue and is therefore primarily responsible and liable for the nuisance and resulting harm to plaintiffs.

         While the court is not precluded from considering any document outside the pleadings in resolving a Rule 12(c) motion, see Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 116 (4th Cir. 2013) (“A court may . . . consider a written instrument attached as an exhibit to a pleading as well as [documents] attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.” (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (alteration in original)), the court concludes that the documents defendant seeks to have filed under seal are not necessary to the court's analysis. The bulk of the documents at issue are defendant's contracts (or portions thereof) with the landowners, including the Off-Site Finisher Manual, which, according to plaintiffs, is incorporated in the contracts. As evidenced by the pleadings, it is uncontroverted that defendant contracted with the landowners to grow defendant's swine at the landowners' facilities and that defendant paid the landowners for that service. Also, at least for purposes of the motion for judgment on the pleadings, plaintiffs do not dispute that, under the terms of the contracts, the landowners are obligated to comply with all laws and control odors from their farms. Furthermore, defendant acknowledges, “the Contracts are only minimally relevant at this point in the litigation.” (Def.'s Reply Mot. Seal, DE # 221, at 7.)

         As for those other documents plaintiffs filed which defendant wants filed under seal, the court concludes they too are unnecessary for the court to resolve the motion for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiffs allege in their second amended complaints the extent to which defendant purportedly controls the swine operations. The court does not need to review the evidence in support of those allegations to evaluate whether the landowners are necessary and indispensable parties to these cases.

         Because the documents which are the subject of defendant's motions to seal are not necessary to the court's analysis of the motion for judgment on the pleadings and the court will not consider them, the documents are not subject to a right of public access and shall remain under seal.[2]See In re Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 1995 WL 541623, at *4-5 (reversing the district court's order unsealing documents filed in connection with a motion to dismiss but excluded from consideration and recognizing “the documents in this case did not play any role in the district court's adjudication of the motion to dismiss”). The court will direct the Clerk to unseal plaintiffs' unredacted response memorandum, (DE # 188), and plaintiffs' Exhibit 7, (DE # 188-4), neither of which defendant seeks to have filed under seal. Because the CM/ECF system does not permit the Clerk to unseal portions of an attachment to a docket entry, the court will ...


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