Court of Appeals Adopts Six-Factor Balancing Test for Determining Whether Public Court Filings Should Be Sealed

On December 27, 2018, the Court of Appeals decided J.C. v. District of Columbia, Lead No. 14-CV-1331, slip op. (D.C. Dec. 27, 2018), in which it considered, inter alia, whether the trial court properly decided to seal briefs filed in connection with summary judgment and to redact its order granting summary judgment. Slip op. at 2-4, 6, 27-29.

By way of background, this case arose from child abuse and neglect proceedings which terminated in favor of the alleged perpetrators. Id. at 2. The alleged perpetrators subsequently filed a civil action against the District of Columbia and several of its employees alleging civil rights and common law tort claims arising from actions taken against them. Id. at 2-3. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the District of Columbia, and dismissed the other defendants. Id. It also sealed the briefs and released to the public only a redacted copy of its order. Id. at 3. The Washington Post intervened to obtain public access to the briefs and an unredacted copy of the order. Id. The trial court denied The Washington Post’s requests. Id.

The Court of Appeals considered, inter alia, whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying The Washington Post’s requests. In considering that issue, it recognized “the widely accepted principle that the public has a presumptive right of access to civil filings, and in particular to summary judgment pleadings and orders.” Id. at 27. “In the District of Columbia, the presumptive right to access records is premised on common law traditions, which are not absolute,” thus requiring “the weighing of factors and interests.” Id. at 27-28.

The Court of Appeals then stated that it finds persuasive for deciding the issues presented “a six-factor balancing test . . . articulated” by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293, 317-22 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Id. at 28. It then recited those factors as follows:

“(1) the need for public access to the document[] at issue; (2) the extent to which the public had access to the document prior the sealing order; (3) the fact that a party has objected to disclosure and the identity of that party; (4) the strength of the property and privacy interests involved; (5) the possibility of prejudice to those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purpose for which the documents were introduced.”

Id. at 28-29 (quotation marks omitted).

The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court failed to explain its decision to seal the briefs and to redact its order. Id. at 29. It therefore remanded the case to the trial court to apply the above factors and to explain its decisions with respect to sealing the briefs and redacting the order. Id.