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Lavinder v. Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

December 15, 2016




         Pending before the court is the defendant Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company's Motion to Seal [ECF No. 67]. For the reasons given below, the Motion is DENIED.

         I. Background

         This action concerns an insurance contract dispute between the plaintiff and the defendant. The plaintiff alleges three Counts against the defendant: (1) breach of contract, (2) unfair claims settlement practices, and (3) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing/bad faith. See Notice of Removal Ex. A [ECF No. 1-1] (“Compl”). The plaintiff alleges that he “was insured under a Long Term Disability Policy issued by Mutual of Omaha” and had “paid the premiums to Mutual of Omaha to keep the Policy in full force and effect.” Compl. ¶ 3. According to the Complaint, the plaintiff submitted a claim to the defendant for long term disability benefits under the terms of the insurance policy and submitted sufficient evidence to support his claim. Compl. ¶ 5. The defendant denied his claim, and the plaintiff initiated an administrative appeal, which was also denied. Compl. ¶¶ 6, 7. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant's refusal to pay benefits under the insurance policy was arbitrary and capricious, unsupported in fact or in law, and a breach of contract. Compl. ¶ 8.

         Pursuant to the Amended Scheduling Order, any dispositive motions in this case must be filed on or before December 20, 2016. Am. Scheduling Order [ECF No. 35]. The defendant requests to seal its present Motion and supporting memorandum, its motion for summary judgment and supporting memorandum, and all supporting exhibits. Mot. 2. The defendant argues that these documents should be sealed because the documents contain sensitive medical information regarding the plaintiff.

         II. Legal Standard

         While documents may be protected if they contain trade secrets or other confidential information, “[o]nce documents are made part of a dispositive motion, such as a summary judgment motion, they ‘lose their status of being raw fruits of discovery.'” Rushford v. New Yorker Mag., Inc., 846 F.2d 249, 252 (4th Cir. 1988). Accordingly, the court will not seal a document simply because the parties have designated that document as “Confidential.” A motion to seal must be filed.

         According to Local Rule of Civil Procedure 26.4(b)(2), a motion to seal must be accompanied by a memorandum of law that contains “(A) the reasons why sealing is necessary, including the reasons why alternatives to sealing, such as redaction, are inadequate; (B) the requested duration of the proposed seal; and (C) a discussion of the propriety of sealing, giving due regard to the parameters of the common law and First Amendment rights of access as interpreted by the Supreme Court and our Court of Appeals.” LR Civ P 26.4(b)(2). The court will only seal documents when “exceptional circumstances” are present. LR Civ P 26.4(b)(1). In order to determine whether the materials should be sealed, the court will weigh the public's First Amendment and common law rights of access against the interests of the party seeking continued confidentiality. See Va. Dep't of St. Police v. Wash. Post, 386 F.3d 567, 575-76 (4th Cir. 2004).

         The common law right affords presumptive access to all judicial records and documents. Nixon v. Warner Comms., Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978); Stone v. U. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 178, 180 (4th Cir. 1988). Materials that fall within the common law right may be sealed only if competing interests outweigh the public's right of access. Generally, “all documents filed for the Court's consideration in a civil case, even if not the subject of a judicial decision, are subject to presumptive access.” Walker Sys. v. Hubbell, Inc., 188 F.R.D. 428, 429 (S.D. W.Va. 1999); see also Brown & Williamson Tobacco v. FTC, 710 F.2d 1165 (6th Cir. 1983), cert. denied, 465 U.S. 1100 (1983); In re Coordinated Pretrial Proc. in Petroleum Prods. Antitrust Litig., 101 F.R.D. 34, 38 (C.D. Cal. 1984). Public inspection of court documents “is necessary to allow interested parties to judge the court's work product in the cases assigned to it.” LR Civ P 26.4(b)(1).

         The public's First Amendment right of access can only be overcome when “the denial [of access] is necessitated by a compelling governmental interest, and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 606-07 (1982); Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 15 (1986); Va. Dep't of St. Police, 386 F.3d at 573.

         In a concurring opinion, the Fourth Circuit provided some procedural guidance to district courts for the sealing of documents:

First, the judicial officer must “state the reasons for [her] decision to seal supported by specific findings.” In re Knight Pub. Co., 743 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984). “The judicial officer may explicitly adopt the facts that the government presents to justify sealing . . . [b]ut the decision to seal must be made by the judicial officer.” Balt. Sun Co. v. Goetz, 886 F.2d 60, 65 (4th Cir. 1989). Second, “the judicial officer must consider alternatives to sealing the documents. This ordinarily involves disclosing some of the documents or giving access to a redacted version.” Id. at 66 (citations omitted). Third, a judicial officer must give notice to the public by docketing the order sealing the documents. Id. at 65. All of these procedures “must be followed when a [judicial officer] seals judicial records or documents.” Stone v. U. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 178, 179-80 (4th Cir. 1988) (emphasis added).

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