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Newspaper wins right to see settlement with city

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT         Freedom of Information         Jan 25, 2001    

Newspaper wins right to see settlement with city

  • A federal appeals court finds that a settlement must be open under the state’s open records law.

A federal appeals court unsealed the settlement terms of a case against the city of Huntsville, Texas, after a newspaper intervened in the case.

The settlement ended the case filed against the city by a former employee who claimed she was fired because of her race and gender. The Huntsville Item intervened in the lawsuit arguing that the settlement was open under the Texas open records law.

The law specifically makes public “a settlement agreement to which a governmental body is a part.” Despite the open records law, a federal district court sealed the settlement between the former employee and the city.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) on Jan. 22 concluded that settlements should only be sealed after a court has weighed the interest in sealing the settlement against a strong presumption in favor of opening the settlement to the public under the state’s open records law. The court unsealed the settlement because it found no evidence supporting a need for confidentiality of the settlement’s terms.

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 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 Reporters Committee’s brief.

(Ford v. City of Huntsville; Media Counsel: Kerry Ahern, Jenkens & Gilchrist, Dallas) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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