Sealing the Record
January 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
In the course of litigation between Fulgham, a lawyer, and his former law firm, Morgan & Morgan, PLLC and PA, the chancellor sealed the record at the PLLC/PA’s request. Fulgham objected to no avail. After he lost the case on other grounds, he appealed. One issue he raised was that the file should not have been sealed.
The COA reversed and remanded in Fulgham v. Morgan & Morgan, decided December 17, 2019. The court divided with J. Wilson, Westbrooks, Tindell, and McDonald concurring, Greenlee concurring in part and dissenting in part without separate opinion, Lawrence concurring in part and dissenting in part with separate opinion joined by Barnes and Greenlee. Carlton, McCarty, and C. Wilson did not participate. Lawrence’s concurrence/dissent refers to the “majority opinion,” so I will go with that term. J. Wilson wrote for the majority:
¶23. As noted above, following the initial ex parte hearing, the chancery court granted P.A./PLLC’s request to seal the entire case. P.A./PLLC stated in their written motion to seal the file that the case “concern[ed] confidential client information and communications, bound by attorney client privilege.” P.A./PLLC did not elaborate or provide any specific support for this claim in their motion or at the ex parte hearing. Nonetheless, the chancery court’s TRO provided “that this matter shall be sealed.” Fulgham later moved to lift the seal, but the chancery court did not address his motion. On appeal, Fulgham again moved to lift the seal, but a panel of the Supreme Court denied his motion, stating only that Fulgham’s motion was “not well taken and denied.”[Fn omitted]
¶24. Our Constitution mandates that “[a]ll courts shall be open,” Miss. Const. art. 3, § 24, and “Mississippi law favors public access to public records.” Estate of Cole v. Ferrell, 163 So. 3d 921, 925 (¶18) (Miss. 2012). “Court filings are considered to be public records, unless otherwise exempted by statute.” Id. at (¶15). In addition, a court may, within its discretion, determine that court filings or information contained therein “should be declared confidential or privileged” and sealed from public disclosure. Id. at (¶16). However, before sealing an entire case, a trial court should first “conduct the balancing test set out in Estate of Cole,” supra. Smith v. Doe, 268 So. 3d 457, 464 (¶27) (Miss. 2018); accord Butler Snow
LLP v. Estate of Mayfield, 281 So. 3d 1214, 1220 (¶¶27-29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2019). That test balances the claimed private interest in confidentiality against the public interest in open courts. Estate of Cole, 163 So. 3d at 924, 929 (¶¶11, 32-33).
¶25. In this case, the chancery court did not conduct any balancing test or any analysis of P.A./PLLC’s request to seal the entire case. The order sealing the case was simply entered following an ex parte hearing. Yet it is not clear that the court file in this case contains any privileged attorney-client communications or confidential client information. To the extent that it does, specific documents can be redacted or filed under seal as necessary. But the fact that a few specific filings may contain privileged or confidential information does not warrant sealing the entire case from public view.
¶26. In addition, although the Attorney Retention Agreement between Fulgham and P.A. to the public by action of the trial court . . . shall be closed to public access in the appellate courts and shall be treated as a confidential case by the clerk of the appellate courts.” contains a one-sided confidentiality provision, [Fn 13] that provision does not warrant sealing the entire the Agreement or the entire case. In this case, P.A. chose to make the Agreement a public judicial record by filing it in court and asking the court to interpret and enforce its terms. Once P.A. invoked the judicial process to enforce the Agreement, it was no longer entitled to insist that the Agreement remain confidential. See Estate of Cole, 163 So. 3d at 928 (¶28) (discussing Bank of Am. v. Hotel Rittenhouse Assocs., 800 F. 2d 339 (3d Cir. 1986)). Rather, the Agreement became a public record in a judicial proceeding, presumptively open to the public. Bank of Am., 800 F.2d at 345. It is conceivable that specific terms of the Agreement are sufficiently confidential and sensitive that parts of the Agreement could be redacted. [Fn 14] But the chancery court’s order sealing the entire case did not address that issue.
[Fn 13] The Agreement prohibits Fulgham, but not P.A., from disclosing the contents of the Agreement.
[Fn 14] On appeal, Morgan & Morgan has asserted that the Agreement contains “trade secrets.”
¶27. In summary, while a court has discretion to seal or require the redaction of court filings that contain confidential or privileged information, Estate of Cole, 163 So. 3d at 925 (¶16), the court must first balance the asserted private interest in confidentiality against the public interest in open courts and transparent judicial proceedings. Id. at 924, 929 (¶¶11, 32-33). The chancery court in this case failed to do so and abused its discretion by sealing the entire case file. Therefore, we vacate the chancery court’s order sealing the entire case. On remand, the chancery court may determine what, if any, part of the record should be sealed or redacted under the Supreme Court’s decision in Estate of Cole.