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In re Fort Totten Metrorail Cases

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 8, 2013



REGGIE B. WALTON United States District Judge

These consolidated lawsuits arose out of a collision between two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) trains that occurred on June 22, 2009, resulting in the deaths of nine passengers and injuries to many others. See Second Amended Master Complaint (“Compl.”) ¶¶ 156, 161. Currently before the Court is the motion of WP Company, LLC, which operates the Washington Post newspaper (the “Post”), for leave to intervene and for access to court records. Upon careful consideration of the parties’ submissions, [1] the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Post’s motion.

I. Background

On June 22, 2009, two WMATA trains collided near the Fort Totten Metrorail station in Washington, D.C. Compl. ¶ 156. The collision killed nine passengers and injured at least eighty others. Id. ¶ 161. Numerous alleged victims of the train collision brought suit in this Court, asserting various common law tort claims against WMATA and three of its equipment contractors: Ansaldo STS USA, Inc., Alstom Signaling Inc., and ARINC, Inc. (collectively, the “Corporate Defendants”). See id. ¶¶ 3-19. After consolidating the cases, the Court designated a common docket number, Miscellaneous Action No. 10-314, for all filings related to the Fort Totten Metrorail cases. See ECF No. 3 at 1.

Over the course of this litigation, the Court has granted the parties’ requests to seal a number of filings. These sealed filings can be divided into the following three categories:

1. Documents concerning settlement agreements involving minors that were filed with and approved by the Court. See ECF Nos. 218, 219, 240, 247, 253, 657, 676, 677, 773, 774, 775, 776, 778, 779, 780, and 781.
2. Documents relating to confidential mediations. See ECF Nos. 616, 623, 624, 625, 627, 630, 631, 638, 639, 641, 649, 650, 651, 655, 656, 661, 711, 715, 716, 718, 719, and 721.
3. Documents containing medical and other sensitive information about individual plaintiffs. See ECF Nos. 429, 547, 772, 782, and 786. The Post has provided extensive press coverage of the Fort Totten Metrorail collision.

See Post’s Mem. at 3. It asserts, however, that the Court’s sealing of the foregoing documents has hindered its ability “to report fully on the collision and the subsequent legal proceedings, ”[2] and thus moves for leave to intervene in these cases under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24(b) and for access to the sealed records.[3] Id. As grounds for its motion, the Post invokes both “common law and First Amendment rights of access to the court records in these cases.” Id. at 1.

II. Motion for Access to Court Records

The public’s right of access to judicial records derives from two independent sources: the common law and the First Amendment. See United States v. El-Sayegh, 131 F.3d 158, 160-61 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Perhaps recognizing that the District of Columbia Circuit has expressed doubts about whether the First Amendment right of access applies outside of the criminal context, see SEC v. Am. Int’l Grp., 712 F.3d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 2013); Ctr. for Nat’l Sec. Studies v. DOJ, 331 F.3d 918, 935 (D.C. Cir. 2003), the Post’s motion rests primarily on the common law right of access, see Post’s Mem. at 13 n.11. Accordingly, the Court will focus on that right, only addressing the First Amendment right of access where the common law does not provide a sufficient basis for unsealing the documents requested by the Post.

“In ‘the courts of this country’—including the federal courts—the common law bestows upon the public a right of access to public records and documents.” Wash. Legal Found. v. U.S. Sentencing Comm’n, 89 F.3d 897, 902 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (quoting Nixon v. Warner Commc’ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978)). This right extends to “judicial records.” El-Sayegh, 131 F.3d at 161; Am. Int’l Grp., 712 F.3d at 3. “[W]hether a document must be disclosed pursuant to the common law right of access involves a two-step inquiry.” Wash. Legal Found., 89 F.3d at 902.

First, the court must determine whether the document sought is a judicial record. See id. And in this Circuit, “not all documents filed with courts are judicial records.” Am. Int’l Grp., 712 F.3d at 3. Rather, “whether something is a judicial record depends on ‘the role it plays in the adjudicatory process.’” Id. (quoting El-Sayegh, 131 F.3d at 163 (holding that a withdrawn guilty plea agreement in a criminal case which the district court never ruled upon was not a judicial record)). The reasoning for this rule is intuitive: “the concept of a judicial record ‘assumes a judicial decision, ’ and with no such decision, there is ‘nothing judicial to record.’” Id. (quoting El-Sayegh, 131 F.3d at 162).

If a document qualifies as a judicial record, the court proceeds to the second inquiry: balancing the public’s right of access against the interests favoring nondisclosure. See Wash. Legal Found., 89 F.3d at 902. The “starting point” of this analysis is the “‘strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings.’” EEOC v. Nat’l Children’s Ctr., Inc., 98 F.3d 1406, 1409 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). In United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293 (D.C. Cir. 1980), the Circuit “identified six factors that might act to overcome this presumption”:

(1) the need for public access to the documents at issue; (2) the extent of previous public access to the documents; (3) the fact that someone has objected to disclosure, and the identity of that person; (4) the strength of any property and privacy interests asserted; (5) the possibility of prejudice to those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purposes for which the documents were introduced during the judicial proceedings.

Nat’l Children’s Ctr., 98 F.3d at 1409 (citing Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 317-22). Although this inquiry is necessarily case-specific, there are a few “time-honored exceptions” to the common law right of access. Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 315. “There is, for instance, no right of access to ‘documents which have traditionally been kept secret for important policy reasons, ’” In re Motions of Dow Jones & Co., 142 F.3d 496, 504 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (citation omitted), such as “protect[ing] trade secrets, or the privacy and reputation of victims of crimes, ” “guard[ing] against risks to national security interests, ” and “minimiz[ing] the danger of an unfair trial by adverse publicity, ” Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 315-16 (internal footnotes omitted).

With this legal framework as its guide, the Court will address the applicability of the common law right of access with respect to each ...

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