NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Secret Courts · April 18, 2007
Wal-Mart documents will be made public
April 18, 2007 · Documents from Wal-Mart Corporation that were sealed by an Alameda County, Calif., trial court during an employment lawsuit will now be made public, a California appeals court ruled last week.
The April 9 ruling was based on the fact that Wal-Mart filed a motion to seal the documents too late, in violation of California court rules.
The appeals court’s ruling did not say how many documents would be made available, but The Berkeley (Calif.) Daily Planet said that the decision could ensure public access to thousands of pages of documents containing information about Wal-Mart’s labor guidelines and staffing formula, pay guidelines and timekeeping system.
The lawsuit began in February 2001, when Wal-Mart employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the corporation and claimed that Wal-Mart had not given some employees compensation for rest breaks, meal periods, and time they worked that was not recorded in the timekeeping system.
Shortly after the litigation began, the parties agreed to an order stating that when seeking to permanently seal documents, they would follow California court rules requiring them to file formal notions and give notice when they sought to seal.
Despite this agreement, both parties were allowed to file documents under seal over the next two years without following the required procedures.
Therefore, when the Daily Planet attempted to inspect and copy the documents that Wal-Mart had filed in summer 2004, they found that all the documents were sealed at the trial court with only the captions page of each document available to the public. The newspaper then moved to unseal all of Wal-Mart’s records in August 2004.
After learning of the newspaper’s action and realizing the same documents had been filed with the appeals court unsealed, Wal-Mart immediately asked the state appeals court to permanently seal the documents.
Wal-Mart officials insisted that they had worked out an off-the-record agreement with the trial judge in August 2002 that the documents would be considered permanently sealed unless one of the parties involved in the case filed an objection.
The appeals court agreed to temporarily seal its documents while the trial court resolved the issue.
The trial court denied the newspaper’s initial motion to unseal, saying it was premature, and noted that either party seeking to permanently seal documents must make a motion to that effect. When Wal-Mart did, the trial judge ordered some of the documents opened but agreed to permanently seal the most sensitive of the Wal-Mart documents.
The appeals court overruled the trial court’s decision, insisting that the trial court “cannot rely solely on an agreement or stipulation of the parties as the basis for permitting records to be filed under seal,” referring to the off-the-record agreement. The three-judge panel also said that “the trial court lacked discretion to entertain a belated motion to seal.”
Furthermore, the appeals court ruled that “Wal-Mart’s conduct was so inconsistent with an intent to enforce its rights to obtain sealed records under the Rules of Court as to induce a reasonable belief that it had relinquished such right.”
However, the appeals court agreed with the trial court’s decision to deny the Daily Planet compensation for attorney fees since the newspaper was not the plaintiff or the defendant in the original lawsuit, and therefore not a “party.”
Attorney Karl Olson, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of media organizations supporting the Daily Planet, said the decision to make the documents public is very positive.
“The ruling will hopefully send a message to litigants that think they do not need to follow sealed record rules,” Olson said. “The rules are there for a reason.”
(Savaglio v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Media Counsel: David A. Rosenfeld, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, Alameda, Calif., Amicus Counsel: Karl Olson, Levy, Ram & Olson, San Francisco) — MA