Documents remain confidential to protect college’s privacy
GEORGIA–In early March, the state Supreme Court in Atlanta decided 4-3 that a confidential agreement in a civil case between the Savannah College of Art and Design and the School of Visual Arts can remain sealed to protect the college’s privacy interest.
The court found that only 22 pages of private settlement documents were being protected and noted that the trial court had previously found that the records were confidential. The court pointed out that it disagreed with the lower court ruling that the college had waived confidentiality when it filed the document with the court upon challenging the Savannah Morning News’ motion to unseal them.
The court noted that “to hold that the private nature of a settlement agreement is lost once the document is filed in the trial court places litigants in the unusual dilemma of having to waive an agreement’s confidentiality in order to enforce it.”
The dissent noted that the public interest in disclosure was significant. It pointed out that “the resolution of [the] litigation, the largest civil lawsuit in the county’s history, and the reasons for Visual Arts’ departure from downtown Savannah [alleged as part of the agreement] are issues of public interest to the schools’ students and the city’s citizens and taxpayers.”
In 1993, Savannah College sued the School of Visual Arts and nine individuals for conspiracy to harm the college by illegal means. The schools reached a settlement agreement in 1996. One condition of the agreement was that the parties were bound to maintain complete confidentiality about the litigation and the terms of the settlement. The trial court entered an order on February 5, 1996 approving the agreement and expressly ordering the parties to keep all settlement documents confidential. The agreement was not filed with the court, and therefore, there was no request to seal the confidential agreement as a court record.
Subsequently, the Visual Arts’ president announced to the school’s faculty, staff, and students that the school would leave Savannah by June 1999. A news article in the Savannah Morning News in February 1996 described the decision to close the school as a term of the agreement settling the lawsuit between the college and Visual Arts.
In September 1996, Visual Arts filed an arbitration action to enforce the settlement agreement; the college filed a counterclaim alleging that Visual Arts had breached the agreement by disclosing its terms to the media.
On February 26, 1998, the trial court issued an order directing the clerk to file the motion to compel and confidential settlement documents under seal and to limit access to these documents. The Savannah Morning News thereafter filed motion to unseal the documents. Following a hearing, the trial court concluded that the settlement documents should be open for public inspection because the college failed to meet its burden in limiting access. Savannah College filed an interlocutory application, which Visual Arts supported. On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the college’s privacy interest in the settlement documents did not outweigh the public interest in access to court records. (Savannah College of Art and Design, Inc. v. School of Visual Arts, Inc.; Media Counsel: James Ellington, Augusta)