By Mark Kantor
A decision of the US District Court for the District of Columbia in the middle of last month offers a reminder of the hurdle a party must meet in order to seal from public access the entire record of a proceeding to confirm or vacate an arbitration award. In XPO INTERMODAL, INC. v. American President Lines, Ltd., Civ. Action No. 17-2015 (PLF) (D. D.C., October 16, 2017)(available here – https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=5024133744129204150&hl=en&lr=lang_en&as_sdt=20003&as_vis=1&oi=scholaralrt), the applicant (XPO INTERMODAL) sought an order in a confirmation proceeding to seal its petition to confirm the arbitration award (denominated, oddly, as a “Binding Mediation Decision”), as well as all exhibits. US District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman denied the request notwithstanding a confidentiality provision in the contract underlying the arbitrated dispute (“this matter can and should be open to the public to the greatest extent possible”). But he did order that the parties seek to agree in redactions of “only the most sensitive information.”
XPO INTERMODAL sought the order to seal “its Petition to Confirm Arbitration Award, as well as two exhibits attached thereto: the Binding Mediation Decision issued by the three-member mediation panel and the parties’ Amended and Restated Stacktrain Services Agreement and Schedules A-F and Appendices 1-4 thereto.” The Court characterized that as a request deny public access to “what, in effect, amounts to the entire substantive record in this case.” In support, the petitioner referred to the confidentiality provisions of the services agreement out of which the underlying dispute arose, and further stated that the award and exhibits contained “highly sensitive propriety [sic] commercial information,” including information regarding the parties’ “rates and business practices.”” Apart from those general arguments, however, XPO INTERMODAL offered little to the court to justify sealing the record.
In support of its motion, applicant directs the Court to the confidentiality terms of the parties’ Services Agreement and represents that “[b]oth parties have strong property and privacy interests in maintaining the confidentiality of these documents, as they contain highly sensitive propriety [sic] commercial information,” including information regarding the parties’ “rates and business practices.” See Mot. 4. Beyond these general assertions, however, applicant’s motion proffers little to justify sealing what, in effect, amounts to the entire substantive record in this case.
The District Court began its analysis by referring to the “strong tradition” of public access to judicial proceedings.
This country has a “strong tradition of access to judicial proceedings.” United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293, 317 n.89 (D.C. Cir. 1980). “[A]s a general rule, the courts are not intended to be, nor should they be, secretive places for the resolution of secret disputes.” United States v. Bank Julius, Baer & Co., 149 F. Supp. 3d 69, 70 (D.D.C. 2015) (citing Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978))….
Therefore, “[t]he starting point in considering a motion to seal court records is a strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial proceedings.” To obtain an order to seal judicial records in the Federal courts despite this presumption, the applicant must satisfy the court regarding whether there is a need for public access, the extent of prior public access, whether someone has objected to disclosure, the strength of property and privacy interests, and the purposes of the documents in the court proceeding.
To determine whether a party seeking to seal court records has overcome this presumption, courts apply a six-factor balancing test to assess:
(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 in those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purposes for which the documents were introduced during the judicial proceedings.
After reciting this “six-factor balancing test,” though, Judge Friedman simply jumped to his conclusion without addressing how the various factors weighed in the circumstances of this application. The only two factors noted by the District Court Judge in his analysis were the presumption in favor of public access and the ease of redaction.
Given the strong presumption in favor of public access and the ease with which confidential information may be redacted from documents before they are publicly filed, the Court concludes that this matter can and should be open to the public to the greatest extent possible.
Importantly, Judge Friedman was not persuaded that exhibits should be sealed in their entirety “simply because they contain or refer to confidential information.” Generalized business interests in confidentiality (even if mutual between the parties) would not suffice, especially if redaction is feasible.
First, generalized business interests in confidentiality simply “do not rise to the level of the privacy and property interests that courts have permitted to outweigh the public’s right of access.” …. This is particularly so where trade secrets, pricing, and other sensitive information regarding business practices or strategies may be redacted. ….
Judge Friedman noted in particular a line of cases rejecting the argument that confidentiality provisions in the underlying contract were sufficient to provide for sealing the judicial record.
Furthermore, the parties’ mutual desire for confidentiality, without more, does not justify the sealing of the entire substantive record of the case. See Grynberg v. BP P.L.C., 205 F. Supp. 3d 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2016) (explaining that even if disclosure would violate the terms of the parties’ settlement and confidentiality agreements, such agreements between private parties “do not dictate whether documents can be filed under seal” (citing In re Fort Totten Metrorail Cases, 960 F. Supp. 2d 2, 9-11 (D.D.C. 2013))); see also Am. Prof. Agency v. NASW Assurance Serv., 121 F. Supp. 3d 21, 25 (D.D.C. 2013); Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. v. FTC, 710 F.2d at 1180.
The District Court acknowledged that XPO INTERMODAL’s confirmation filings appeared to contain “some potentially sensitive business information, including rates and schedules.” Accordingly, the Court ordered the parties to seek to agree on redactions to the documents rather than complete sealing of the filings.
Here, it appears that the exhibits to applicant’s Petition do include some potentially sensitive business information, including rates and schedules, but the filings otherwise do not warrant sealing from the public. The Court thus sees no reason why the Petition itself should not be made publicly available in full, nor any reason why the exhibits thereto should not be made generally available, with only the most sensitive information redacted. The Court is confident that a more rigorous examination undertaken in good faith will lead to a more tailored and appropriate proposal for redaction.
FURTHER ORDERED that the parties shall confer regarding the Petition’s exhibits and submit proposed redactions to the Court on or before October 30, 2017
The simple lesson from XPO INTERMODAL is that, if the judge is paying attention, requests to seal the entirety of a judicial proceeding to confirm an arbitration award are likely to be met with an instruction instead to identify particular redactions of “only the most sensitive information.”
Mark Kantor is a CPR Distinguished Neutral and a regular contributor to CPR Speaks. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, Mark was a partner in the Corporate and Project Finance Groups of the Firm. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). Additionally, Mr. Kantor is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management.