The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Thursday applauded a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals (5th Cir.) to unseal the settlement terms of a case against the city of Huntsville, Texas.
The settlement brought an end to a case filed against the city by a former employee claiming she was fired because of her race and gender. The Huntsville Item intervened in the suit arguing that the settlement was open under the Texas open records law.
“The public has a fundamental right to know the terms of any settlement agreement involving a city,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. “A city should not be able to circumvent a state’s open records law, and avoid disclosing the harm it has caused, or the money it is willing to pay to correct that harm, by seeking a sealed settlement.”
The Texas open records law specifically opens “a settlement agreement to which a governmental body is a part” to public inspection. Despite the open records law, a lower court sealed the settlement between the former employee and the city from public disclosure.
“Too often courts seal settlements without giving any consideration to the need for public disclosure,” Dalglish said. “These orders are even more offensive when they involve a settlement that is clearly public under the state’s open records law, as was the settlement in this case.”
The court concluded 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 dissolved the order sealing the settlement because it found no evidence supporting a need for confidentiality of the settlement’s terms.
“This opinion is a victory for open access to government documents,” Dalglish said. “There is a long history in the United States of open access to court documents. Settlements should be treated no different, especially when the government is involved.”
The Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors joined the Reporters Committee’s brief. The brief can be found at https://www.rcfp.org/news/documents/fordvch.html .