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In a decision released today, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond held that the public and press right of access to court records trumps a corporation’s desire to keep quiet complaints about one of its products — regardless of whether those complaints are inaccurate or unfounded.

“Public access serves to promote trustworthiness of the judicial process, to curb judicial abuses, and to provide the public with a more complete understanding of the judicial system, including a better perception of fairness,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd in Public Citizen v. Company Doe.

The court reversed a lower court ruling and ordered the unsealing of the entire record of a case that originated from an effort by a manufacturer to prevent the Consumer Product Safety Commission from publishing a negative report about one of the company’s products.

As described in an earlier NC Policy Watch story about the lower court proceedings:

In October, a manufacturer sued the CPSC to stop the agency from posting a negative report about one of its products. At the same time, the company asked to proceed under a pseudonym and to have the entire case litigated under seal. Consumer groups and the media objected to both requests, claiming that the public had a right to know the identity of the company and the facts underlying the case.

The court didn’t rule on that objection until July 2012, by which time the case had been secretly and fully litigated.  [The lower court judge] held that the subject report was inaccurate and should be withheld; that the company could litigate as “Company Doe”; that the case could proceed under seal; and that the objecting groups could not overturn his seal order.  He also found that the potential harm to the company’s reputation outweighed the right of access to judicial records and justified his decisions in the case.

The advocacy group Public Citizen, one of the organizations leading the charge for disclosure, called the decision “a resounding victory for both the First Amendment right of access to court records and for consumers.”

Not only will the decision stand as a bulwark against the type of secret litigation that occurred in this case, it will also help ensure the efficacy of the CPSC database by preventing companies from litigating challenges to individual CPSC reports through years of secret litigation — a practice that, if permitted, would have undermined the goal of providing timely information to consumers through the database.

The identity of Company Doe will be disclosed once the case is sent back to district court.

Read the full decision here.