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Dykstra v. Aetna Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 20, 2018

Nathaniel Dykstra, Plaintiff,
Aetna Life Insurance Company, et al., Defendants.


          James A. Teilborg, Senior United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is the parties' joint motion to seal the administrative record. The motion will be denied for two reasons. First, it applies the wrong legal standard. Second, it factually fails to meet the standard regardless.

         Legal Standard

         In the Ninth Circuit,

“It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” Nixon v. Warner Commnc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978). Following the Supreme Court's lead, “we start with a strong presumption in favor of access to court records.” Foltz v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 331 F.3d 1122, 1135 (9th Cir.2003). The presumption of access is “based on the need for federal courts, although independent-indeed, particularly because they are independent-to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice.” United States v. Amodeo (Amodeo II ), 71 F.3d 1044, 1048 (2d Cir.1995); see also Valley Broad. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court-D. Nev., 798 F.2d 1289, 1294 (9th Cir.1986) (explaining that the presumption of public access “promot[es] the public's understanding of the judicial process and of significant public events”).
Accordingly, “[a] party seeking to seal a judicial record then bears the burden of overcoming this strong presumption by meeting the ‘compelling reasons' standard.” Kamakana, 447 F.3d at 1178. Under this stringent standard, a court may seal records only when it finds “a compelling reason and articulate[s] the factual basis for its ruling, without relying on hypothesis or conjecture.” Id. at 1179. The court must then “conscientiously balance[ ] the competing interests of the public and the party who seeks to keep certain judicial records secret.” Id. (quoting Foltz, 331 F.3d at 1135) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). What constitutes a “compelling reason” is “best left to the sound discretion of the trial court.” Nixon, 435 U.S. at 599. Examples include when a court record might be used to “gratify private spite or promote public scandal, ” to circulate “libelous” statements, or “as sources of business information that might harm a litigant's competitive standing.” Id. at 598-99.

Ctr. for Auto Safety v. Chrysler Grp., LLC, 809 F.3d 1092, 1096-97 (9th Cir.), cert. denied sub nom. FCA U.S. LLC v. Ctr. for Auto Safety, 137 S.Ct. 38 (2016).

When deciding what test to apply to a motion to unseal a particular court filing-the presumptive “compelling reasons” standard or the “good cause” exception-we have sometimes deployed the terms “dispositive” and “non-dispositive.” … Although the apparent simplicity of [this] approach is appealing, we do not read our case law to support such a limited reading of public access. [footnote omitted] Most litigation in a case is not literally “dispositive, ” but nevertheless involves important issues and information to which our case law demands the public should have access….
…[P]ublic access will turn on whether the motion is more than tangentially related to the merits of a case. While many technically nondispositive motions will fail this test, some will pass. Our reading of the public access cases is consistent with our own case law, and more importantly, comports with the old tradition of ensuring public access which “antedates the Constitution and ... is now beyond dispute.” Leucadia, 998 F.2d at 161 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Id. at 1097-1101.

         In this case, because the administrative record will be the primary, if not the only, document on which the briefing on appeal will be based, it is clearly more than tangentially related to the case. Thus, to seal the administrative record, the parties must meet the compelling reasons test.[1]


         In this case, the parties jointly argue that “…[T]he Administrative Record containing Plaintiff's medical records is being lodged [under seal] with the Court on a joint motion because the need to protect Plaintiff's confidential health information outweighs any public interest in disclosure of sensitive personal and medical information.” (Doc. 25-1 at 3). The parties make no argument as to why this would be true; they merely argue a conclusion.

         Some courts that have considered the issue of sealing records in ERISA cases have concluded that the presumption of public access to court records ...

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