United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.
2015, Syngenta sued Willowood, seeking millions of dollars in
lost profits as a result of alleged patent infringement. The
case was tried to a jury in September 2017. Syngenta now
seeks to seal certain trial exhibits and related portions of
the trial transcript that contain confidential business
information. The public interest in open trials is
extraordinarily high. Open courts promote the integrity of
the judiciary, increase public understanding of the court
system, and assure the public that proceedings and the
resulting verdicts are fair, impartial and non-arbitrary.
Secret trials and verdicts based on secret evidence kindle
suspicions of corruption, unfairness, and conspiracies.
Public access should rarely be restricted when the
information sought to be sealed is important to understanding
what happened at trial
some of the exhibits and testimony, the information that
Syngenta seeks to seal is crucial to understanding the trial,
and Syngenta has not established that its private interest
outweighs the public interest in open courts. As to these
materials, the motion will be denied.
other materials, Syngenta primarily seeks to seal
confidential information that was never mentioned during the
trial but is in evidence because it was part of an exhibit
containing relevant information and Syngenta does not seek to
seal the relevant portions of the exhibit or accompanying
testimony. The public interest in access to such information
is small and disclosure of Syngenta's confidential
information would harm its competitive standing. As to these
materials, non-disclosure will not interfere with public
understanding and oversight and the motion will be granted.
I. OVERVIEW OF THE CASE
2015, Syngenta sued Willowood for patent infringement, seeking
millions of dollars in lost profits on its fungicides
containing azoxystrobin. There were four patents at issue:
the compound patents (the ‘076 Patent and the
‘256 Patent) both claim a group of chemical compounds
that includes azoxystrobin, and the process patents (the
‘138 Patent and the '761 Patent) both claim methods
of manufacturing azoxystrobin. See, e.g., Doc. 1 at
¶ 21; PTX 1-4. The compound patents and the ‘138
Patent expired before trial, and the '761 Patent expires
in 2029. See PTX 1, 2, 3 and 4; 35 U.S.C. §
154. Syngenta asserted that the infringement began in 2013
and, as to the ‘761 Patent, was continuing.
Court granted summary judgment in favor of Syngenta as to
validity and infringement of the compound patents by certain
Willowood defendants. Doc. 141. The remaining issues were
tried to a jury in September 2017. The jury found that:
Willowood Limited did not infringe the compound patents;
Willowood did not infringe the ‘138 Patent; the
‘761 Patent was valid and Willowood infringed it;
Syngenta proved that it was entitled to $75, 600 in damages
for Willowood's infringement of the compound patents;
Syngenta proved that it was entitled to $900, 000 in damages
for Willowood's infringement of the ‘761 Patent;
and Willowood's infringement of the compound patents was
not willful. Doc. 319.
trial, Syngenta filed the pending motion, seeking to seal
twelve exhibits in full and to redact information from an
additional thirteen exhibits. See Doc. 331 at 12,
14, 16-18. Syngenta also seeks to redact information from the
publicly available trial transcript that, for the most part,
discloses information in the exhibits. Id. at 13,
STANDARD FOR SEALING TRIAL TESTIMONY AND EXHIBITS
the public has a right to attend trials and oversee the
courts, the First Amendment protects the public's right
to access the trial testimony and exhibits that Syngenta is
moving to seal. See, e.g., In re Application of
U.S. for an Order Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 2703(D),
707 F.3d 283, 290-91 (4th Cir. 2013); Am. Civil Liberties
Union v. Holder, 673 F.3d 245, 252 (4th Cir. 2011)
(collecting cases). The Court therefore evaluates
Syngenta's motion under the First Amendment public right
to access standard.
public interest in open courts at this stage of the
proceedings-a civil trial-is almost at its peak, exceeded
only by the public interest in a criminal trial. “A
trial is a public event. What transpires in the court room is
public property.” Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S.
367, 374 (1947). Openness advances the civil adjudication
process by increasing public understanding of the court
system and by assuring the public that proceedings and the
resulting verdicts are fair, impartial, and non-arbitrary.
See, e.g., Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v.
Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 571-72 (1980); Doe v. Pub.
Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 263, 267 (4th Cir. 2014). Open
trials also promote the institutional integrity of the
judiciary, Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 263, 267, by
encouraging a sense of public responsibility by judges and
jurors, see Cowley v. Pulsifer, 137 Mass. 392, 394
(1884), and by discouraging arbitrary decision-making.
See In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 270-71 (1948).
“the operation of the court system is a matter of
utmost public concern, ” Va. Dep't of State
Police v. Wash. Post, 386 F.3d 567, 574 (4th Cir. 2004),
public's right of access to trials and trial exhibits is
neither absolute nor unlimited. Nixon v. Warner
Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 598 (1978). Rather, it
“must be balanced against other compelling
interests.” In re Knight Pub. Co., 743 F.2d
231, 234 (4th Cir. 1984). Restrictions on the public's
right of access may be appropriate when access to judicial
records could provide a “source of business information
that might harm a litigant's competitive standing.”
Nixon, 435 U.S. at 598; see also Woven Elecs.
Corp. v. Advance Grp., Inc., Nos. 89-1580, 89-1588, 1991
WL 54118, at *6 (4th Cir. Apr. 15, 1991). “A
corporation may possess a strong interest in preserving the
confidentiality of its proprietary and trade-secret
information, which in turn may justify partial sealing of
court records.” Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 269;
see also Apple, Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd.,
727 F.3d 1214, 1218, 1228-29 (Fed. Cir. 2013) (applying Ninth
Circuit law and sealing narrow selection of records submitted
in a patent case in connection with a non-dispositive
pretrial motion and a post-trial motion for injunctive relief
and enhanced damages where records contained product-specific
financial information and other information that, if public,
would cause competitive harm).
under the less stringent common law right of access, the
litigant seeking to restrict access must show that its
interest protected by sealing “heavily outweigh[s] the
public interests in access” to court proceedings before
a district court may restrict or limit public access. See
Rushford v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 846 F.2d 249, 253
(4th Cir. 1988). When the First Amendment right of access
applies, the litigant must also present “specific
reasons” that “justify restricting access to the
information”; conclusory assertions are not sufficient.
Lord Corp. v. S & B Tech. Prods., Inc., No.
5:09CV205D, 2012 WL 4056755, at *1 (E.D. N.C. Sept. 14,
2012); see Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court,
478 U.S. 1, 15 (1986). Further, the requested restriction on
public access must be narrowly tailored to serve the private
interest. See Va. Dep't of State Police, 386
F.3d at 575; accord Woven Elec., 1991 WL 54118, at
*6 (“The district court should review the entire record
of the trial, including the exhibits and transcripts if any,
and seal only those portions necessary to prevent the
disclosure of trade secrets.”).
information Syngenta seeks to seal is confidential business
information that falls into five general categories:
financial information; supply agreements; corporate strategy
documents; experiments related to the development of the
‘761 Patent; and testing protocols. In support of its
motion, Syngenta has submitted a declaration by Andrew
Fisher, Syngenta's Product Lead for azoxystrobin
products. He has testified to the confidential nature of the
trial exhibits that Syngenta is moving to seal, which he
asserts include confidential and trade secret information.
See Doc. 332 at ¶¶ 3-13. Mr. Fisher also
affirms that Syngenta's competitive standing will be
harmed by the disclosure of this confidential information.
Court has complied with the First Amendment notice
requirements set forth in Stone v. Univ. of Md. Med. Sys.
Corp., 855 F.2d 178, 181 (4th Cir. 1988) and
Rushford, 846 F.2d at 253-54. Syngenta filed a
pretrial motion seeking similar relief on August 28, 2017,
Doc. 287, and on August 30, 2017, the Court arranged for
posting notice of that motion on the Middle District's
website. Syngenta filed the post-trial motion on October 4,
2017. Doc. 330; see Mears v. Atl. Se. Airlines,
Inc., No. 5:12CV613F, 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.”). On
October 10, 2017, Willowood responded to the motion, but did
not object to it. See Doc. 335. No one else has
challenged either motion or otherwise asked to be heard on
order to determine whether Syngenta's motion should be
granted, the Court evaluates: whether Syngenta has shown that
the information sought to be sealed is confidential; whether
disclosure would harm Syngenta's competitive standing or
otherwise harm its business interests; whether the motion is
narrowly tailored; and whether the interests in
non-disclosure are compelling and heavily outweigh the
public's interest in access to the information. In
weighing the competing interests, the Court considers, among
other things, whether access to the evidence is needed to
understand what happened at trial and the degree of harm that
disclosure would be likely to cause.
FINANCIAL INFORMATION, SUPPLY AGREEMENTS, AND CORPORATE
trial, Syngenta sought approximately $75 million in damages
for lost profits it asserted were caused by Willowood's
infringement of the compound patents and alleged infringement
of the process patents. Willowood contended that
Syngenta's lost profits damages were speculative and that
Syngenta was limited to reasonable royalty damages.
Willowood's expert, John Jarosz, calculated
Syngenta's damages at $900, 000 for the ‘761
Patent. 9/12/17 Tr. at 21. Ultimately, the jury awarded
damages in the amount calculated by Mr. Jarosz. Doc. 319.
Syngenta contended that Willowood's infringing sales
caused it to lose sales and forced it to reduce prices to
compete with Willowood, thus reducing its profits. Syngenta
presented testimony from its employees involved in selling
and marketing azoxystrobin fungicides about the effect
Willowood's entry into the market had on its prices and
sales. 9/6/17 Tr. at 86-204 and 9/7/17 Tr. at 9-200
(testimony of Mr. Cecil and Mr. Fisher). It also presented
testimony from an expert, Dr. Benjamin Wilner, who offered an
opinion on Syngenta's lost profits for each relevant
calendar year and patent. 9/8/17 Tr. at 37-172. Dr. Wilner
calculated Syngenta's lost profits using actual sales as
compared to budgeted (or estimated) sales for azoxystrobin
fungicides, adjusted to the same extent an allegedly similar
product, mesotrione, met its budget
contended that its infringement, if any, did not cause
Syngenta's lost sales and price reductions because
Willowood had a small part of the market and there were other
competitors selling azoxystrobin fungicides. See,
e.g., 9/8/18 Tr. at 103-04. Willowood also challenged
Dr. Wilner's testimony as, inter alia, relying
on inaccurate budgets, failing to consider particular aspects
of the budget process, and selecting an inappropriate product
as a benchmark. See Id. at 92-171 (cross examination
of Dr. Wilner).
of resolving the dispute over Syngenta's damages, both
parties presented evidence about Syngenta's gross sales
of azoxystrobin fungicides and its pricing of those
fungicides before and after Willowood entered the market.
Both Syngenta and Willowood offered numerous exhibits and
questioned witnesses about detailed sales figures and pricing
information for both mesotrione and azoxystrobin, as well as
details about Syngenta's budget process and marketing
strategies. Syngenta seeks to seal in whole or in part a
number of these trial exhibits, and it also seeks to redact
some pricing and sales numbers disclosed in trial testimony.