United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
RANDOLPH D. MOSS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the estate of John Hamen, Mark McAlister, and eleven of their
family members, bring this action against Defendants, the
Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic, under
the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and Virginia law.
Plaintiffs allege that Hamen and McAlister were taken hostage
from the Sana'a airport in Yemen by the Houthis, a rebel
group, and that members of the group subsequently detained
and tortured both men, killing Hamen after eighteen days and
releasing McAlister after six months. Dkt. 1 at 13-16 (Compl.
¶¶ 65, 70-75, 78-84). Plaintiffs allege that Iran
and Syria are responsible because they provided material
support to the Houthis and because the violence against
McAlister and Hamen was a foreseeable result of that support.
Id. at 16-17 (Compl. ¶¶ 91-98).
have effected service on the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dkt.
25, but Iran has not answered, filed a motion under Federal
Rule of Civil Procedure 12, or otherwise appeared. The Syrian
Arab Republic has not yet been served. Plaintiffs have moved
for a default judgment against the Islamic Republic of Iran,
Dkt. 31, and an evidentiary hearing is scheduled before the
Court on July 25-26, 2018.
the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for leave for a witness
to testify under seal. Dkt. 34. Plaintiffs explain that the
witness “will provide valuable testimony . . .
supporting Plaintiffs' claims that Mr. McAlister and Mr.
Hamen were taken hostage” by explaining “the
Houthis' mode of operation for handling detained
Americans.” Id. at 1. However, because the
witness “works on government contracts based in Yemen
and Syria that require him to visit those countries, ”
the witness “believes his safety would be put at risk
if his testimony were made part of the public record,
particularly since he has already been detained once in
reasons set forth below, the Court will
GRANT the motion.
starting point in considering a motion to seal court records
is a ‘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) (quoting Johnson v. Greater Se. Cmty. Hosp.
Corp., 951 F.2d 1268, 1277 (D.C. Cir. 1991)). That
presumption recognizes that “[t]he right of public
access is a fundamental element of the rule of law, important
to maintaining the integrity and legitimacy of an independent
Judicial Branch.” Metlife, Inc. v. Fin. Stability
Oversight Council, 865 F.3d 661, 663 (D.C. Cir. 2017).
It “promote[s] trustworthiness of the judicial process,
. . . curb[s] judicial abuses, and . . . provide[s] the
public with a more complete understanding of the judicial
system, including a better perception of fairness.”
In re Application of Jason Leopold to Unseal Certain
Elec. Surveillance Applications & Orders, 300
F.Supp.3d 61, 80 (D.D.C. 2018) (quoting Doe v. Pub.
Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 266 (4th Cir. 2014)). Although
the presumption is a “strong” one, it is
“not absolute, ” id., and it “may
be outweighed in certain cases by competing interests,
” Metlife, 865 F.3d at 665.
assist courts in assessing whether the presumption gives way,
the D.C. Circuit established a six-factor test in United
States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293 (D.C. Cir. 1980). That
test-the “Hubbard test”-requires that
(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
Nat'l Children's Ctr., 98 F.3d at 1409
(citing Hubbard, 650 F.2d at 317-22). Applying this
test, the Court concludes that safety and privacy interests
outweigh any public interest in access to the witness's
Need for Public Access
D.C. Circuit recognized in Hubbard, not all judicial
records and proceedings are created equal. 650 F.2d at 317.
In some circumstances, such as “the courtroom conduct
of a criminal trial, ” the First Amendment requires
public access. Id. In others, the common law may
place a premium on public access. Id. And, in still
others, the public interest in access may be minimal.
Id. Although no precise formula controls in all
cases, the public interest is heightened when disclosure
would “allow the public to understand the rulings as
well as the contours of the disputes between the
parties.” Hyatt v. Lee, 251 F.Supp.3d 181, 184
to Plaintiffs, the witness will provide “valuable
testimony to the Court . . . by helping to establish the
Houthis' mode of operation for handling detained
Americans.” Dkt. 34 at 1. Because this testimony may
affect the Court's decisionmaking process in this case,
the first Hubbard factor weighs in favor of
Extent of ...