On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. Civ. No. 81-01091).
Before: Sloviter, Chief Judge Cowen and Lewis, Circuit Judges.
In this case the district court denied appellant's Motion to Lift Seal which in effect denied him access to the court records of his own lawsuit. Because we can find no justification for the initial closure of the record, nor for the order on appeal, we will reverse.
In July 1981, appellant Ralph Miller filed suit in federal court against the Indiana Hospital and various of its doctors and administrators alleging constitutional and antitrust violations stemming from the termination and subsequent denial of his staff privileges at the Hospital. On January 29, 1982, defendants, coincident with submitting their responses to Miller's first set of interrogatories, requests for admissions and production of documents, filed a motion to impound the record claiming that "the details related to this action constitute private and confidential information which should not be disclosed to third parties or the general public." Although defendants filed allegations in support of its motion, those allegations were general in nature and set forth no specific details.*fn1
On February 8, without a hearing or even a response from Miller, the court entered an order directing the Clerk of the Court to "seal and secure all Court papers filed of record and to allow access to any such papers only by counsel of record and/or their authorized representatives. Access to the same records by any other person is prohibited and shall be allowed only by further Order of Court and upon good cause shown."
Although the order was never rescinded, the numerous decisions of the district court and the court of appeals in this case were published in the official reporters with the names of the parties listed and with references to, and quotations from, the complaint and response, transcripts of hearings, expert reports, depositions and affidavits filed in the case.*fn2 Indeed, on the parties second appearance in this court, the Clerk of the Court explicitly unsealed all portions of the record on appeal because no party had shown good cause for continuing to maintain a sealed record.
After final Disposition of his claims, Miller sought access to a transcript of status conference held before the district court during the course of the litigation. When he was informed that he could not obtain the material without a court order, Miller filed the motion seeking an order to lift the seal. The court denied the motion without explanation on July 15, 1993, and this timely pro se appeal follows.
The existence of a common law right of access to judicial records is beyond dispute. See Littlejohn v. Bic Corp., 851 F.2d 673, 677-78 (3d Cir. 1988); United States v. Criden, 648 F.2d 814, 819 (3d Cir. 1981) (Criden I). This Court has made it clear that our "strong presumption" of openness does not permit the routine closing of judicial records to the public. The party seeking to seal any part of a judicial record bears the heavy burden of showing that "the material is the kind of information that courts will protect" and that "disclosure will work a clearly defined and serious injury to the party seeking closure." Publicker Indus., Inc. v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059, 1071 (3d Cir. 1984). A party who seeks to seal an entire record faces an even heavier burden.
While we have recognized that there are certain delineated areas where openness is not the norm, see, e.g., Capital Cities Media, Inc. v. Chester, 797 F.2d 1164 (3d Cir. 1986) (in banc) (internal documents of administrative agencies); First Amendment Coalition v. Judicial Inquiry & Review Bd., 784 F.2d 467 (3d Cir. 1986) (in banc) (state judicial discipline proceedings); Publicker, 733 F.2d at 1073 (trade secrets); United States v. Criden, 681 F.2d 919, 921 (3d Cir. 1982) (Criden III) (material explicitly determined to be impermissibly injurious to third parties); Criden I, 648 F.2d at 829 (same), these cases are the exception.
In a case such as this, involving ordinary civil litigation, the district court, before taking such an unusual step, should have articulated the compelling countervailing interests to be protected, made specific findings on the record concerning the effects of disclosure, and provided an opportunity for interested third parties to be heard. See Publicker, 733 F.2d at 1072; United States v. Raffoul, 826 F.2d 218, 222-23 (3d Cir. 1987).*fn3 Even if the initial sealing was justified, when there is a subsequent motion to remove such a seal, the district ...