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News organizations urge federal court to unseal judicial records in Purdue Pharma bankruptcy case

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  1. Court Access
RCFP attorneys argue that there is a substantial public interest in the drug maker’s bankruptcy case.
Photo of Purdue Pharma building. Photo by Douglas Healey

On behalf of Dow Jones, the Boston Globe and Reuters, attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are urging a federal court to unseal judicial records filed in bankruptcy proceedings involving Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

The news organizations are seeking to intervene in the company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in order to gain access to hundreds of sealed and redacted court documents, including some records that allegedly contain evidence that Purdue and its owners, the Sackler family, may have improperly hid assets.

In a motion filed on Monday with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Reporters Committee attorneys argue that the press and public have a right under the bankruptcy code and the First Amendment to access court records filed in the proceedings, and highlight the substantial public interest in the case given the drug maker’s role in the opioid crisis.

“Transparency is essential to ensuring the integrity of judicial proceedings, particularly in a case of such intense public interest,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “We urge the court to provide the press and public access to these sealed and redacted records. The public has both a statutory and constitutional right to access this information, and the parties in the case have not offered any justification sufficient to keep it secret.”

Purdue has been the focus of significant public scrutiny as a result of the opioid crisis. As the manufacturer of OxyContin, the company has been widely accused of being a driving force behind the public health epidemic that has had devastating consequences for individuals and communities across the United States.

Purdue filed for bankruptcy in September 2019, part of an effort to settle 2,600 federal and state lawsuits stemming from the company’s role in the opioid crisis. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it had resolved all civil and criminal claims against Purdue, as well as a civil settlement with members of the Sackler family, subject to the bankruptcy court’s approval.

As part of Purdue’s bankruptcy proceedings, the Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors of Purdue Pharma is investigating whether the company transferred money to offshore and personal accounts of Sackler family members so that the funds couldn’t be accessed in litigation. The UCC has filed motions seeking the production of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents the company and the Sacklers have withheld in discovery, but those motions have been heavily redacted.

Other records in the bankruptcy proceeding, including sworn statements that attorneys have filed with the court, have been sealed entirely.

Reporters Committee attorneys argue that the sealed and redacted judicial documents filed in the case are subject to the strong presumption of public access under the bankruptcy code and the First Amendment. In order to keep the documents under seal or heavily redacted, the records must fall within one of the narrow exemptions stipulated in the bankruptcy code.

“Because the parties have not — and cannot — make such a showing,” Reporters Committee attorneys argue in their motion, “the sealed and redacted judicial documents at issue should be immediately unsealed and unredacted.”

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

AP photo by Douglas Healey

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