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Harbaugh v. Bucks County

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  1. Court Access

Case Number: 2:20-cv-01685-MMB

Court: U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Client: Bucks County Courier Times

Motion to Intervene and Unseal Filed: Oct. 31, 2023

Background: In March 2020, the estate of Brittany Ann Harbaugh filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Correctional Facility and its medical contractor, PrimeCare Medical, alleging that Harbaugh’s 2018 death while in custody was a result of their failure to properly monitor and care for her while she was experiencing opiate withdrawal. Three years later, the two sides reached a settlement agreement, which was sealed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the request of Harbaugh’s estate.

The Bucks County Courier Times, which has extensively covered the many lawsuits against the county jail and PrimeCare for allegedly failing to provide adequate medical care to inmates, was able to obtain through a public records request a portion of the records showing that Bucks County paid Harbaugh’s estate $250,000 to settle the case. However, the newspaper was unable to access records concerning PrimeCare.

In October 2023, the Bucks County Courier Times sent PrimeCare a letter asking it to turn over the sealed settlement records in this case as well as sealed settlement records in dozens of other cases brought by inmates or their estates against the medical contractor. PrimeCare failed to respond to the request.

On behalf of the Courier Times, Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Pennsylvania, and Heather E. Murray of the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic filed this motion to intervene in the case to seek the unsealing of the settlement records. The newspaper’s attorneys argue that the Courier Times has standing to intervene, that the First Amendment and common law rights of access entitle the public and the press to access filed settlement agreements, and that the Harbaugh settlement agreement and its related records were improperly sealed by the court.

Quote: “PrimeCare’s actions here impact public tax expenditures and the health and safety of incarcerated individuals. Thus, the settlement records involve important matters of public interest, health, and safety. Yet, because the settlement records were sealed, questions remain concerning PrimeCare’s portion of the settlement as it continues to serve as the prison’s health care contractor. To answer these questions, the Bucks County Courier Times seeks access to the settlement records to shed further light on this matter of significant public concern. The public interest factors weigh heavily in favor of disclosure.”

Co-Counsel: Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic

Related: The Bucks County Courier Times and The York Daily Record, represented by Burke and Murray, successfully moved twice before to unseal settlement records in similar cases concerning PrimeCare’s allegedly inadequate medical care. To learn more about Burke’s other successful efforts to help journalists and news organizations unseal or otherwise access legal settlements, check out this Q&A.

Update: On Nov. 29, 2023, the district court granted the Bucks County Courier Times’s motion and ordered the settlement records unsealed. On Jan. 11, 2024, the Courier Times reported that PrimeCare paid $1 million to settle the wrongful-death lawsuit with Harbaugh’s family. 


2023-10-31: Motion to intervene and unseal

2023-10-31: Memorandum of law in support of motion to intervene and unseal

2023-11-29: Order to unseal settlement records

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