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Litigant's privacy interest doesn't outweigh access right

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 17, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SOUTH CAROLINA   ·   Secret Courts   ·   May 17, 2006

Litigant’s privacy interest doesn’t outweigh access right

  • A company seeking financial information about a former employee in a sealed divorce proceeding is entitled to the records, the state high court ruled.

May 17, 2006  ·   A family court judge did not err in unsealing the records in a South Carolina divorce proceeding, the state Supreme Court ruled May 8.

Rhett Alexander Beaver did not convince the court that his interest in privacy trumped the presumption of access to the records by his former employer, who sought the information in 2002 in an effort to recover money embezzled by Beaver.

“Beaver has not shown a perceived harm from disclosure, other than asserting a general right to privacy,” Justice E.C. Burnett III wrote for the 4-1 majority. “Capital [U-Drive-It Inc.] seeks access to the records for a legitimate purpose in connection with its unrelated civil action against Beaver. Unsealing the record will serve the fundamental interests of public access, especially the goal of bringing the truth to light.”

Beaver relinquished any privacy interest when he and his wife, Michelle W. Beaver, filed divorce proceedings in family court, Judge Burnett noted.

“Litigants who carry disputes in a publicly funded forum for resolution must necessarily expect to surrender a good measure of their right to privacy,” he wrote. Family Court Judge Richard W. Chewning III of Lexington, S.C., sealed the court record in the Beaver’s divorce in April 2002, one month before Rhett Beaver pleaded guilty to mail fraud. As part of the plea deal, Beaver agreed to turn over certain personal property and cooperate with government investigators. The indictment stemmed from an embezzlement scheme which defrauded Capital U-Drive-It Inc. of $551,864, according to the high court ruling.

In its effort to recover the embezzled funds, Capital sought access to information in the court file pertaining to Beaver’s finances, which Judge Chewning granted.

Supreme Court Justice Costa M. Pleicones agreed that the case was properly appealed to the state’s high court, but dissented on the openness issue because the burden was on Beaver, not Capital, to show why the records should not have been unsealed.

“In my opinion, the proponent of the motion, Capital, is the party that should bear the burden of persuasion,” Justice Pleicones wrote. “The burden of persuasion for sealing the record was met in the first instance before the family court. Imposing on [Beaver] a perpetual burden of keeping the record sealed is inappropriate.”

Pleicones agreed with the majority that as “a general proposition, the records of the family court should be treated no differently than court records in any other case when considering whether to seal or unseal such records.” The majority noted that in weighing privacy interests and public access, family courts have the additional burden of considering whether exposing the private financial matters would adversely affect the parties or sensitive child custody issues.

The ruling also noted that public “access to judicial proceedings, in both criminal and civil trials, was commonplace and proper when the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, and was a right long enjoyed in England in preceding centuries.”

(Ex parte Capital U-Drive-It Inc.; Counsel for requester: Todd R. Ellis, Columbia, S.C.)KM

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