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Pleadings in lawyer's suit against firm to remain sealed

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Pleadings in lawyer’s suit against firm to remain sealed

  • A Dayton judge refused to lift his emergency order sealing the complaint in an employment discrimination lawsuit, and ordered that hundreds of pages of attachments be removed from the filing.

June 24, 2004 — Overruling objections from the news media, an Ohio judge said Monday that public disclosure of pleadings in civil lawsuits is not required by the First Amendment, the Ohio Constitution or the state’s open records law.

The ruling means a 569-page pleading filed by attorney Barbara L. Sager against her former firm, Coolidge, Wall, Womsley & Lombard, located in Dayton, will not be publicly available; the 65-page complaint will remain under seal, and more than 400 pages of attachments will be removed from the court file and returned to the plaintiff, according to the court’s opinion.

Just a few hours after the materials were filed, on June 11, Judge G. Jack Davis of Common Pleas Court in Dayton granted the defendant’s emergency request to seal the entire pleading. Davis has acknowledged that he sealed the documents before reading them.

Subsequently, Sager and two news organizations — the Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV — asked Davis to lift the sealing order. After a public hearing on June 14, Davis issued his 18-page decision on Monday. The ruling leaves the sealing order intact, and also requires future pleadings in the case to be filed under seal.

In the opinion, Davis acknowledged a public right to inspect and copy judicial records, but said Sager’s pleading fell within “one, if not all three” of the exceptions in a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Nixon v. Warner Communications.

Nixon mentions three situations in which court records in civil cases may be sealed: (1) if disclosure may be used to gratify private spite or promote scandal, (2) if the records may be “reservoirs of libelous statements” for press consumption, or (3) if disclosure might reveal trade secrets.

Davis suggested that Sager’s pleading may contain false, scandalous or irrelevant allegations. The document “is better described as a manifesto or a declaration of war than a ‘complaint,'” Davis said.

Separately, the judge rejected the media’s contention that the pleading must be disclosed under the Ohio Public Records Act.

“To the extent that a document does not serve to document the activities of a public office, it is not a public record and need not be disclosed under the act,” Davis declared.

He reasoned that a document generated by a litigant, rather than the court itself, “is not an item which serves to document the activities of either the Clerk’s office or the Court.”

Although the ruling makes the complaint off-limits to the news media, it does not totally curb their ability to cover the case. As Davis acknowledged in his opinion, news outlets remain free to report information they gather from other sources.

The Dayton Daily News — for which Sager used to write a weekly column — said in a June 22 story that it had already received a copy of the complaint before the sealing order was entered.

(Sager v. Coolidge, Wall, Womsley & Lombard; Media Counsel: Gary W. Gottschlich, Attorney at Law, Dayton, Ohio) JM

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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