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Amato v. Branch Banking and Trust Co.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 8, 2018

ALFRED L. AMATO United States of America ex rel., Relator,
v.
BRANCH BANKING AND TRUST COMPANY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TANYA S. CHUTKAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the court are Relator Alfred Amato's Request for Voluntary Dismissal Pursuant to Rule 41(A) and Motion for a Temporary Sealing Order. For the reasons stated below, the court will GRANT Relator's Request for Voluntary Dismissal and DENY Relator's Motion for a Temporary Sealing Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On March 31, 2016, Relator filed this qui tam action against Defendant Branch Banking and Trust Company (“BB&T”) pursuant to the False Claims Act (“FCA”), 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729, et seq. ECF No. 1 (Compl.). Relator alleges that BB&T made false statements and claims to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) in order to receive reimbursement payments from the FDIC for financial losses it incurred on certain loans. Id. ¶¶ 2-15. Specifically, Relator alleges that BB&T fraudulently obtained approximately $5 million in reimbursement funds on a mortgage loan for which he was the guarantor (the “South Fork Loan”). Id. ¶ 34; ECF No. 9 (Mot.) at 3. On December 8, 2017, after a full investigation into Relator's allegations, the United States declined to intervene in this action. ECF No. 7.

         In light of the government's decision not to intervene, Relator filed a Request for Voluntary Dismissal Pursuant to Rule 41(A) on December 14, 2017. ECF No. 10. The government does not oppose the Request. See id.

         B. New York State Court Action

         On June 30, 2010, BB&T sued Relator in New York state court for payment of the balance of the South Fork Loan (the “State Court Action”). Compl. ¶ 105; ECF No. 9-1 (Nelson Decl.) ¶ 2. The case was certified as ready for trial on August 8, 2016, and the parties are currently engaging in final, pretrial discovery. Id. On the same day he filed the Request for Voluntary Dismissal, Relator also filed a Motion for a Temporary Sealing Order, requesting that the court temporarily maintain the current seal over the entire record until the State Court Action is resolved.[1] See generally Mot. The government opposes this request. ECF No. 13 (Opp.).

         II. DISCUSSION

         “‘The starting point in considering a motion to seal court records is a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings.'” Hardaway v. Dist. of Columbia Hous. Auth., 843 F.3d 973, 980 (D.C. Cir. 2016) (quoting E.E.O.C. v. Nat'l Children's Ctr., Inc., 98 F.3d 1406, 1409 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). In United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293, 317-22 (D.C. Cir. 1980), the D.C. Circuit articulated “six factors that might act to overcome this presumption” of public access:

(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 or 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). The weighing of these factors is “‘best left to the sound discretion of the trial court, a discretion to be exercised in light of the relevant facts and circumstances of the particular case.'” Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 316- 17 (quoting Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 599 (1978)). The court finds that only one of the Hubbard factors-the fact that Relator has objected to disclosure-weighs in favor of maintaining a temporary seal in this case.

         A. Need For Public Access

         As noted, there is a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings. Hardaway, 843 F.3d at 980. This strong presumption is especially present in FCA cases because such cases “inherently implicate the public interest.” U.S. ex rel. Durham v. Prospect Waterproofing, Inc., 818 F.Supp.2d 64, 67 (D.D.C. 2011) (citation omitted). Indeed, “[t]axpayers are ‘real parties in interest' in FCA cases because they possess a strong interest in fraud committed against the United States that ...


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