Details of a settlement between a Louisiana sheriff’s office and the daughter of a man who died in its custody must be made public, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled.
The underlying case was brought after Victor White III died of a gunshot through the chest while he was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car in 2014. The Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office claimed that White shot himself, but a lawsuit filed on behalf of White’s daughter, a minor, claimed that White was killed by sheriff’s deputies.
The two parties ultimately agreed to a settlement in March 2018. No written settlement agreement was filed with the district court, but the parties read the settlement terms, including the settlement amount, into the district court’s record at a post-conference meeting. The sheriff’s office and White’s daughter agreed to keep the terms of that settlement confidential, despite the fact that any money awarded would be paid using tax dollars.
After an unsuccessful public records request, TV news station KATC and one of the state’s largest daily newspapers, The Advocate, sought to unseal court records detailing the settlement, but the district court denied their motion. The district court discounted the public interest in access to details of the settlement, considering only what it called “the media’s interest in releasing a sensational story regarding the amount of money paid to resolve the lawsuit without knowing anything about how the decisions were ultimately reached in the parties’ settlement negotiations.”
When the news outlets appealed to the Fifth Circuit, they were supported by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the backing of 32 other media organizations. The brief argued that public access to information about the settlement was supported by both the First Amendment and common law — especially in a case of such clear public concern.
In a ruling issued on Monday, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit largely agreed, referencing the Reporters Committee and Brechner Center’s brief in its decision to reverse and vacate the lower court’s sealing orders. The ruling has cleared the way for the public to access the minutes of both the settlement conference and a post-conference meeting in which the parties formally stated the terms of the settlement. An audio recording of the latter is also set to be released.
“Here, at least one of the parties is a public official or party of a public nature,” the court wrote. “[A]nd the public’s interest in the settlement amount is particularly legitimate and important, not least because disclosure will allow the public to monitor the expenditure of taxpayer money.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo by Scott Davidson