From the Winter 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 41.
A federal appeals court has unsealed the terms of a settlement agreement between Huntsville, Texas, and a former city employee who alleged racial and sexual discrimination.
A local newspaper, advocating disclosure, intervened in the case because the state open records law explicitly calls for such agreements to be made public.
Deneen Ford sued the city and police chief claiming that her termination from the Huntsville Police Department was racially and gender motivated. The settlement ended her chance to prove the claims and the agreement included a provision that the court record was to reflect the city’s and the police chief’s denial that Ford’s firing was racially or gender motivated. However, Ford did collect $42,500 in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.
The parties had agreed to keep the terms of the settlement confidential. After notice of the parties’ agreement, the district court ordered the case dismissed and sealed the settlement terms.
When The Huntsville Item learned of the confidentiality order, it attempted to intervene in the lawsuit, arguing state law defines settlements with a city as open records, and there was no need for confidentiality. The district court on Feb. 16, 2000 denied the request to intervene and to unseal the settlement without holding a factual hearing on the merits of the newspaper’s case.
The newspaper appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.), and on Jan. 22 the appeals court concluded that The Huntsville Item not only had a right to intervene in the case, but also had a right to view the settlement.
Under the federal rules of procedure, a party has a right to intervene in a lawsuit if the party has an interest in the lawsuit not adequately represented by the original parties involved. The appeals court supported intervention by the newspaper because the confidentiality agreement between Ford, the city and the police chief, the court said, would impede the newspaper’s “ability to bring suit successfully under the Texas Act to gain access to the settlement agreement.”
The court unsealed the settlement because there was no evidence to support a need for confidentiality of the settlement’s terms.
When determining the validity of a confidentiality order, the Fifth Circuit relied on previous cases that establish a presumption against secrecy in similar circumstances.
“Where it is likely that information is accessible under a relevant freedom of information law, a strong presumption exists against granting or maintaining an order of confidentiality whose scope would prevent disclosure of that information pursuant to the relevant freedom of information law,” the unsigned opinion of the court read.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The Reporters Committee urged the court to allow The Huntsville Item to intervene in the case and to unseal the settlement because it is against public policy to seal a document explicitly made open under a state’s open records law. The Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors joined the brief. — CC