Not keeping a secret: Study finds sealed settlements are rare in federal courts

ABA Journal
Friday, April 9, 2004

In an exhaustive study, the Federal Judicial Center has concluded that sealed civil settlements are rare in federal court, but that they occur most often in cases involving a death or serious disability.

The study also says the documents that remain open to public scrutiny "almost never" included reasons for filing the settlement under seal.

Joanne Doroshow, an attorney and executive director of the New York City-based Center for Justice & Democracy, says efforts to limit the use of secret settlements and protective orders in state and federal courts have stalled. In addition to South Carolina, only the eastern district of Michigan limits how long sealed settlement agreements may be sealed.

The judicial center study reviewed court rules in every district and applicable case law. The study involved 288,846 cases completed in 2001 and 2002 in a selected sample 52 districts. Researchers found 1,272 cases with sealed settlement agreements, about 0.44 percent or one in every 227 cases. Three districts sealed settlements at a rate of more than twice the national average, with Puerto Rico topping the list at 3.3 percent, Hawaii coming in at 2.2 percent, and the eastern district of Pennsylvania at 0.94 percent.

The report concluded that in most instances, the information sealed typically involved the amount of the settlement. Doroshow says that from her perspective, the amount of the settlement isn’t the issue, but rather whether sealing the document hides a public health or safety threat.
For a copy of the complete article, contact CJ&D.

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