American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - Center For Auto Safety v. Chrysler Group, LLC. -
Decrease font size
Increase font size
February 9, 2016
  Center For Auto Safety v. Chrysler Group, LLC. -
Headnote: Ninth Circuit panel held that, in light of the strong presumption for public access to court records, defendant Chrysler Group ("Chrysler") must demonstrate "compelling reasons" to keep sealed documents that were attached to class action plaintiffs' preliminary injunction motion, finding that the preliminary injunction motion, while not technically "dispositive," is nevertheless "more than tangentially related to the merits of a case."

Areas of Law: Civil Procedure; Documents Under Seal

Issue Presented: In ruling on a motion to unseal documents, what is the appropriate test to be applied to determine when documents that were produced under seal during discovery, and subsequently attached to a preliminary injunction motion, can be unsealed and made available to the public?

Significance: Ninth Circuit panel's holding makes it more difficult for corporations sued for selling defective products to conceal those defects from the public by settling those lawsuits before the court reaches a final determination on the merits and then having the court seal the records.

Brief Summary:

Plaintiffs filed a class action against Chrysler for alleged defects in some of its vehicles and filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to require Chrysler to notify its customers of the threat presented by its defective vehicles. Plaintiffs and Chrysler attached "confidential" discovery documents to their memoranda supporting and opposing the motion. These documents were then filed under seal. Shortly before the district court denied plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, plaintiff-intervenor, the Center for Auto Safety ("CAS"), filed a motion to unseal the documents that were attached to the class action plaintiffs' preliminary injunction motion. The district court denied the motion to unseal, finding that the preliminary injunction motion was "nondispositive" and, therefore, Chrysler only needed to show "good cause" to keep the records sealed. The Ninth Circuit panel vacated the district court's denial, rejecting the dispositive/nondispositive test under which a party seeking to keep documents sealed must demonstrate "compelling reasons" only in those cases where the motion at issue is literally "dispositive" meaning that it brings about a "final determination." The panel found that even technically nondispositive motions may nevertheless be more than tangentially related to the merits of the case and, therefore, a party seeking to keep sealed documents attached to such motions demonstrate compelling reasons therefor . The panel also found that the class action plaintiffs' preliminary injunction motion, while not technically dispositive, was "more than tangentially related to the merits of the case." On remand, Chrysler must demonstrate to the district court compelling reasons for keeping the records under seal.

Extended Summary:

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action alleging defects in certain Chrysler vehicles. During discovery, the parties stipulated to a protective order that permitted each party to designate certain documents as confidential and required any party that later wished to attach a "confidential" document to a court pleading to apply to do so under seal. Plaintiffs later moved for a preliminary injunction to require Chrysler to notify its customers of the alleged risks its vehicles presented. Both parties attached confidential documents to their memoranda supporting and opposing the motion and moved the district court to file the documents under seal. The court granted the motions. Before the district court ruled on the preliminary injunction motion, CAS moved to intervene and unseal the confidential documents attached to support and oppose the preliminary injunction motion. CAS argued the documents could not be kept under seal unless Chrysler met the "compelling reason" standard, while Chrysler contended it need only show "good cause." The district court applied the less exacting "good cause" standard and ultimately found Chrysler met this lower bar.

To support its ruling, the district court relied on past Ninth Circuit cases that stated a party attempting to keep records attached to a "nondispositive motion" under seal need only show good cause. The district court defined a dispositive motion as one that could lead to a final determination on some issue. Applying the dispositive test, the district court held the preliminary injunction to inform Chrysler's customers of the potential dangers would not lead to a final determination on an issue and thus applied the less exacting good cause standard.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit panel rejected the mechanical dispositive/nondispositive test applied by the district court. The panel ruled that "public access will turn on whether the motion is more than tangentially related to the merits of a case." The panel noted that, while some nondispositive motions are unrelated, or merely tangentially related, to the merits of a case, "plenty [of] other non-dispositive motions - including routine motions in limine - are strongly correlative to the merits of a case." Limiting the compelling reasons test to the narrow category of "dispositive motions" goes against the long held and strong presumption in favor of public access to court records. A party seeking to seal judicial records bears the heavy burden of overcoming the strong presumption of public access by demonstrating compelling reasons. When deciding whether documents should be kept under seal, the court must balance the competing interest of the public and the party seeking to keep certain records secret.

The panel held that plaintiffs' preliminary injunction was more than tangentially related to the merits of the case. Plaintiffs had demanded in their complaint, inter alia, injunctive relief including an order requiring Chrysler to notify and repair the vehicle defect. The preliminary injunction requested Chrysler disclose the pending litigation to their customers. The panel observed: "If plaintiffs had succeeded in their motion for preliminary injunction, they would have won a portion of the injunctive they requested in the underlying complaint, and that portion of their claims would have been resolved." For that reason, the preliminary injunction motion was more than tangentially related to the merits of the case and, therefore, on remand, Chrysler must demonstrate compelling reasons for keeping the documents sealed.

To read full opinion, please visit:

https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2016/01/11/15-55084.pdf

Panel: Sandra S. Ikuta and John B. Owens, Circuit Judges and William K. Sessions, District Judge.

Argument Date: October 20, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: January 11, 2016

Docket Number: 15-55084

Decided: Vacated and Remanded

Case Alert Author: Brian D. Shapiro

Counsel:
Jennifer D. Bennett (argued) and Leslie A. Bailey, Public Justice PC, Oakland, California, for Intervenor-Appellant.

Thomas H. Dupree, Jr. (argued) and Sarah G. Boyce, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Washington, D.C.; Kathy A. Wisniewski, John W. Rogers, and Stephen A. D'Aunoy, Thompson Coburn LLP, St. Louis, Missouri; Rowena Santos, Thompson Coburn LLP, Los Angeles, California, for Defendant-Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Owens

Circuit: Ninth

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Glenn Koppel

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 02/09/2016 03:00 PM     9th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top