Court finds secrecy is crucial for settlement of lawsuits
NEW YORK–A federal judge in Albany, N.Y. in late September denied a newspaper’s request for access to settlement conferences and related documents under seal in a federal environmental lawsuit against General Electric.
Holding that secrecy is crucial for successful settlements, District Judge Lawrence Kahn said “few cases would ever reach a non-litigated end if the press was in attendance at a settlement conference or privy to settlement proposals.”
Although he acknowledged the “significant public interest” in the negotiations, which are taking place between public and company officials to determine liability for cleaning up a toxic dump site and protecting a public water supply, Kahn held that the Glens Falls Post Star had no First Amendment or common law right of access.
The court relied on cases decided by the federal appeals court in Manhattan (2d Cir.) holding that the right of access to a proceeding or document depends on “whether there has been a tradition of accessibility” to that type of proceeding or document. Kahn found that the presumption of public access to settlement conferences and documents “is very low or nonexistent” and that opening the process to the press “would delay if not altogether prevent a negotiated settlement of this action.”
Kahn found that the newspaper’s interests were adequately protected because the sealing order “only permits the parties to negotiate in private, nothing more,” and that any final settlement reached in the talks will be public.
The underlying environmental suit was filed nine years ago to compel General Electric to clean up a site where the company disposed of more than 450 tons of industrial waste in the 1950s and 1960s. All documents in the settlement talks were sealed by the court in 1994. (United States v. Town of Moreau; Media Counsel: Thomas Gleason, Albany)