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Records in corporate challenge to government product-safety database must be open

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  1. Court Access
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit instructed a Maryland district court yesterday to…

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit instructed a Maryland district court yesterday to unseal in its entirety a consumer safety case that a company had sought to close on the grounds that disclosure would injure its reputation.

In 2011, a yet-to-be-identified manufacturer sued to stop the Consumer Product Safety Commission from publishing on an online database a report that one of its products caused an infant to die. After the district court sealed most of the record and let the company use a pseudonym, three consumer advocacy groups – Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union – challenged the decision.

The Fourth Circuit, in Company Doe v. Public Citizen, based the right of access to these records, which include judicial opinions, summary-judgment materials and docket sheets, in the First Amendment. It found that the company’s asserted interest in “preserving its reputational and fiscal health” did not overcome the public's right to see the materials.

“[W]hether in the context of products liability claims, securities litigation, employment matters, or consumer fraud cases, the public and press enjoy a presumptive right of access to civil proceedings and documents filed therein, notwithstanding the negative publicity those documents may shower upon a company,” Judge Henry F. Floyd, of the Fourth Circuit, wrote.

The panel also ruled that the district court abused its discretion in letting the company litigate under a pseudonym.

Additionally, it rejected the company’s claim that the consumer advocacy groups did not have standing to sue because they are not members of the news media.

“[T]he right of access is widely shared among the press and the general public alike, such that anyone who seeks and is denied access to judicial records sustains an injury,” the court found.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had joined an amicus brief in support of the advocacy groups.