The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a federal trial judge used the wrong standard when he refused a request by the Center for Auto Safety to unseal documents in a now-settled class action accusing Chrysler Group LLC of concealing defective power systems in some models. The appellate court threw out an order denying the Center’s motion for an injunction to make the disputed documents publicly available and said Chrysler must present “compelling reasons” to keep them sealed.
The majority opinion stated that U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson applied the “good cause” standard, instead of the deceptively similar-sounding “compelling reasons” standard, when deciding to keep the seal in place. Those standards come into play when courts are asked to unseal documents attached to motions that aren’t related to the merits of a case. Judge Pregerson’s ruling didn’t give enough weight to the “strong preference for public access,” according to the appellate court. U.S. Circuit Judge John B. Owens wrote:
While simplicity has its virtues, it also has its vices. Here, permitting the public’s right of access to turn on what relief a pleading seeks — rather than on the relevance of the pleading — elevates form too far beyond substance and overreads language in our case law.
Four car owners brought the case in 2013, claiming that their Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles suffered from a host of screwy power problems, which ranged from failing to start or stalling in traffic, to headlights and windshield wipers acting with a mind of their own. Before the parties settled last year, the Center moved to intervene and unseal the documents, which included a proposed warning for Chrysler to release to drivers. The Center said it intended to use the unredacted versions to support a petition for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to launch an investigation into the alleged defect.
Judge Pregerson said there was good cause to keep the seal in effect, citing concerns about exposing Chrysler’s trade secrets among other issues, and importantly, determined that the preliminary injunction motion was nondispositive, meaning the good cause standard applied under Ninth Circuit precedent. While the circuit court agreed that the motion was “technically” nondispositive, the court said that the issue of public access is more directly determined by whether a motion was closely related to the merits of a case. The court said in that regard:
Public access will turn on whether the motion is more than tangentially related to the merits of a case. While many technically dispositive motions will fail this test, some will pass.
There was a dissenting opinion criticizing the majority for unfairly “invent[ing] a new rule” that conflicted with the court’s existing two-part bright line rule, meant to balance the public’s interests against a party’s privacy protections. The majority of the court obviously disagreed. The Center said in a statement that the decision was a “huge victory” for transparency and public safety. The organization said:
In this case, the plaintiffs filed a preliminary injunction motion, arguing that the sealed documents reveal a defect so dangerous that the court should order Chrysler to warn millions of its drivers. Now, thanks to this decision, it’s much more likely that the public will be able to see those documents for themselves.
U.S. Circuit Judges Sandra S. Ikuta and John B. Owens sat on the panel along with U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions. The Center was represented by Jennifer D. Bennett and Leslie Andrea Bailey of Public Justice PC. I agree with the Center’s position and believe the American people would too if they were familiar with the court’s ruling. It’s very important that people are kept informed on matters such as this one that affect public policy.
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