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Court allows nonparty to challenge confidentiality order

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D.C. CIRCUIT--Noting the "longstanding tradition of public access to court records," a federal appeals panel in Washington D.C. (D.C. Cir.)…

D.C. CIRCUIT–Noting the “longstanding tradition of public access to court records,” a federal appeals panel in Washington D.C. (D.C. Cir.) unanimously held in late July that in certain circumstances, a federal procedural rule enables nonparties to intervene in court actions for the purpose of challenging sealing and confidentiality orders.

In its decision, the court noted that newspapers have successfully intervened in cases for the purpose of challenging confidentiality orders, even though they sought access to the information for publication and not for use in other litigation. No newspapers were involved in this case, however.

The appeal arose after Lillie Grier was denied permission to intervene in a 1996 settled lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the National Children’s Center. Grier sought to challenge a court order sealing portions of the record and issuing a protective order that prohibited the use of depositions taken in the case.

Grier sought to intervene in the EEOC’s case against NCC because in March 1995, the D.C. Superior Court dismissed an action filed by Grier alleging that one of NCC’s employees, Steve Austin, had sexually assaulted Grier’s handicapped daughter while in the center’s care.

Grier suspected that there might be information in the record that would be helpful in reopening and litigating her case.

Grier searched portions of the record not covered by the district court’s order, and discovered that Ron Austin, NCC’s Transportation Director and the brother of Steve Austin, had been the subject of a number of sexual harassment complaints in connection with his work at NCC, and that three former employees had filed sexual harassment claims against NCC.

Based on this new information, Grier filed a motion with the D.C. Superior Court to vacate the summary judgment order. The court granted the motion based on Grier’s evidence that NCC “may have been aware of complaints” about Steve Austin prior to Grier’s lawsuit.

Grier became aware of the EEOC’s case against NCC after she read about it in The Daily Washington Law Reporter.

The federal appeals court held that the district court abused its discretion in denying without explanation Grier’s motion to intervene, and vacated and remanded the case for further findings. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. National Children’s Center, Inc.; Appellant’s Counsel: Melissa Rhea, Washington, D.C.)