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Decided: April 16, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court order that sealed litigation records violated the public’s right to access under the First Amendment, and that the district court abused its discretion by allowing the company to proceed under a pseudonym.  Ultimately, the Court vacated the district court’s intervention denial and remanded the decision.

The plaintiff, Company Doe, filed suit under the Administrative Procedure Act seeking to enjoin the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) from publishing a “report of harm.”  The report alleged that a product that was manufactured, and sold, by Company Doe’s was related to the death of an infant.  Company Doe requested that the district court allow it to proceed under a pseudonym, and that the proceedings be sealed.  The district court granted both, and as the Fourth Circuit noted, “[r]egrettably . . . allowed the entire litigation to proceed . . . behind closed doors.”  The district court ultimately ruled in favor of Company Doe on the merits also, issuing a permanent injunction that barred the CPSC from publishing the alleged report.

Following the judgment, the court released an opinion “with sweeping redactions.”  The CPSC did not appeal the decision.  Rather, three consumer advocacy groups (collectively Consumer Groups) filed a post-judgment motion to intervene for the purposes of appealing both conditions.   The district court, however, did not rule on the motion until the period to appeal the underlying judgment expired.   Consumer Groups noted their appeal of the district court’s sealing and pseudonymity orders as well as the court’s “constructive denial” of the motion to intervene.  Consumer Groups filed their appeal, and three months later the district court denied the motion to intervene.

The Fourth Circuit vacated the court’s order denying intervention and concluded that the consumer groups had standing to appeal even though they “were neither parties to, nor intervenors in, the underlying case . . . because they [met] the requirements for nonparty appellate standing and have independent Article III standing to challenge the sealing . . . orders.”  The Consumer Groups also succeeded on the merits.   The Court noted the difficult balancing act involved: weighing Company Doe’s interest in sealing the bulk of the court record against the First Amendment Interest of the CPSC and Consumer Groups.  The Fourth Circuit ultimately held that the seal of the records violated the public’s right of access under the First Amendment.  Accordingly, the Court remanded the case to the district court and ordered that all documents be unsealed, unredacted, and made available to the consumer groups and the public.  The Court also concluded that the district court abused its discretion by allowing Company Doe to litigate under a pseudonym.

Full Opinion

Abigail Forrister