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Court rules that settlement agreement must be unsealed.

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  1. Court Access

    NMU         SEVENTH CIRCUIT         Secret Courts         Feb 5, 2002    

Court rules that settlement agreement must be unsealed.

  • The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) ruled that an Illinois newspaper company is entitled to view an agreement between a community college and a fired official.

An Illinois newspaper company seeking access to a settlement agreement between a community college and a former vice president recently won its effort to view the documents.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) determined on Jan. 17 that the Mid-Illinois Newspapers Inc. was entitled to examine the agreement between Lake Land College and Goble Jessup, former vice president.

In the case, Jessup had sued the Mattoon, Ill.-based college for $1 million, claiming that his termination violated his due process rights. The parties agreed to settle the suit in September 1999 and submitted their settlement agreement to the judge for approval. U.S. Magistrate Judge David Bernthal approved the settlement and, at both the plaintiff and defendant’s request, ordered that all documents pertaining to the settlement be sealed.

The newspaper company, which owns the Mattoon Journal Gazette and the Charleston Journal Gazette, intervened on the grounds that Lake Land College was a public body and asked that the settlement records be unsealed.

Bernthal denied the publishing company’s request.

The publishing company then appealed Bernthal’s ruling to the Court of Appeals in Chicago. In addition, they filed suit against Lake Land College in a local county court claiming college officials violated the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Judge Ashton Waller of the Coles County Court said he would delay making a ruling until the federal process was complete.

On Jan. 17, the federal appellate court made its ruling in favor of the newspaper company, stating that it was entitled to the settlement documents. Chief Judge Richard A. Posner noted that there is a presumptive right of access to court records.

The appellate court found that a record filed with the court, such as the settlement agreement, should be available to the public unless there is a sufficient interest requiring secrecy. This sufficient interest in secrecy includes cases in which there are trade secrets, identity of informers and the privacy of children at issue. The court ruled that the parties had not demonstrated any such reason as to why the records should remain sealed.

Also, the court observed that, normally, settlement agreements are private contracts between litigants. Parties do not usually file the settlement agreements with the court, and if the documents had not been filed, then they would not be deemed “court records.” However, because the agreement in this case was filed with the court, the record becomes presumptively open to the public.

Lake Land College could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but officials have stated that they will agree to follow the ruling.

But the exact terms of the settlement are still not known because the file has yet to arrive at the federal court in Urbana from the federal appeals court. Officials say it could take up to 30 days.

(Jessup v. Luther) AG

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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