Documents Designated as “Confidential” Unsealed by Court   

 In general, the public has a right to access judicial records. Nixon v. Warner Commc’ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978).  However, documents filed with the court under seal are not available to the public. A U.S. magistrate judge for the District of Minnesota recently clarified that documents cannot be kept under seal merely because the parties would prefer it.

In Tile Shop Holdings, Inc. v. Allied World National Assurance Company, the plaintiff requested that over 130 documents filed with the court be kept under seal. However, the plaintiff’s reasons for the request varied. Some documents allegedly contained confidentiality clauses or proprietary information, some had been filed under seal in related litigation, and some had simply been previously designated as confidential in the underlying litigation or by third parties.

The court agreed that it was appropriate to seal the documents that contained confidential or proprietary information, as well as the documents filed under seal in related litigation. However, the court declined to seal the documents that had simply been designated as confidential. The court noted that the plaintiff had failed to explain what information needed to be protected, even if the documents were subject to a protective order or to an agreement between the parties regarding confidentiality. Instead, “[t]he parties must identify what in those documents merits confidential treatment.” The court based its decision on the common-law right of access to judicial records, noting that “the right of access ‘is fundamental to ensuring the public’s confidence and trust in the judiciary.’” As a result, the court ordered that over 100 of the plaintiff’s documents be unsealed.

As a reminder, sealing of documents in the District of Minnesota is governed by Local Rule 5.6. Attorneys and litigants may wish to familiarize themselves with the rule, which expressly provides that documents may not be filed under seal in civil cases unless permitted by statute, rule, or the court’s leave. In practice, this means that documents filed pursuant to a motion or trial may become public documents, even if the parties have a confidentiality agreement.

The case is Tile Shop Holdings, Inc. v. Allied World Nat’l Assurance Co., No. 17-CV-776, 2019 WL 2136147 (D. Minn. May 16, 2019). Please click here to download a copy of the court’s decision.

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