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M.M. v. Lafayette School District

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Francisco Division

April 3, 2017

M.M., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
LAFAYETTE SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING WITHOUT PREJUDICE THE PLAINTIFFS MOTION TO SEAL RE: ECF NO. 175

          LAUREL BEELER, United States Magistrate Judge.

         The plaintiffs filed an administrative motion to file under seal several documents concerning approval of minor C.M.'s settlement.[1] Specifically, they seek to remove from the court's docket and file under seal (1) their attorney's verified petition for approval of the settlement, ECF No. 168-1; (2) C.M.'s parents' declaration in support of that petition, ECF No. 168-2; (3) their proposed order filed with the petition, ECF No. 170; and (4) the court's order approving the settlement, ECF No. 171.[2] At minimum, they say, if the court grants the motion but determines that its order approving the settlement must be kept public, “the identity of the minor's school” at page 3 of that order and the settlement amounts should be redacted.[3] The plaintiffs assert that these documents “must be sealed to protect the minor's identity because identification of the minor is reasonably certain.”[4]

         A request to file under seal “must be narrowly tailored to seek sealing only of sealable material, ” and a party must file a declaration explaining why the target material is sealable. Civil L.R. 79-5(b), (d)(1)(A). Explanations need not be lengthy but they must describe why the material is sealable. See generally id.; Kamakana v. City and Cnty. of Honolulu, 447 F.3d 1172, 1180 (9th Cir. 2006). For material attached to non-dispositive motions, a party must make a “particularized showing” that “good cause” exists to seal the material in question. Id. Where, as here, the material is attached to a dispositive motion, the party “must meet the high threshold of showing that ‘compelling reasons' support [sealing].” Id.; see M.P. ex. rel. Provins v. Lowe's Cos., Inc., No. 2:11-cv-01985-GEB-CKD, 2012 WL 1574801, at *1 (E.D. Cal. May 3, 2012) (“Because approval of the Application [for Approval of Minor's Settlement] is dispositive, the compelling reasons standard applies to Defendant's motion to seal.”).

         If a party satisfies its burden and overcomes the strong presumption favoring public access to judicial records, it must also comply with the court's procedural rules. See Kamakana, 447 F.3d at 1178; Civil L.R. 79-5. These rules require, among other things, that parties file both a redacted version of the target documents (i.e., the version that will appear in the public record) and an unredacted version that “indicate[s], by highlighting or other clear method, the portions of the document that have been omitted from the redacted version . . . .” Civil L.R. 79-5(d)(1)(D).

         Here, the plaintiffs seek to file under seal, in their entirety, four documents because identification of C.M. is reasonably certain.[5] Identification is reasonably certain, they say, “given identification of the minor and his parents' initials in relation to the Lafayette School District and the parents' active involvement in the small community of parents and educators in the school district's community.”[6] They assert such identification “is not a proper topic for public access, ” and that “[l]ittle, if any, interest in public information access . . . weighs against sealing the subject documents.”[7] They argue that information regarding the school district's expenditures (e.g. in litigating and settling the case) is available in other public records.[8]

         The court recognizes the important interest in protecting the minor's identity. But the plaintiffs have not shown compelling reasons to justify sealing the four documents in their entirety.

         First, the information that will supposedly lead to the minor's identification - the minor and parents' initials “in relation to the Lafayette School District” - is already in the public record.[9]The inclusion of that information here cannot be expected to identify the child any more than the other filings in the case.

         Second, if there is new, not-before-disclosed information that could identify C.M., the plaintiffs have the burden of specifically identifying that information for sealing (i.e. by redaction). This may, for example, include C.M.'s new school.[10] But the inclusion of such limited facts does not justify sealing the documents in their entirety - a sealing request must be “narrowly tailored.”

         Thus, if the plaintiffs wish to seal specific information that is (1) not already in the public record and (2) could identify C.M., they must re-file their motion. In it, they must comply with Local Rule 79-5 and must include redacted versions of the documents and unredacted versions that indicate, by highlighting, the “the portions of the document that have been omitted from the redacted version.” Civil L.R. 79-5(d)(1)(C)-(D). And if they wish to keep the settlement value under seal - a fact that apparently has no bearing on C.M.'s identity - they must provide a compelling reason for doing so. (They should also consider that, as they point out in their motion, this information “can be determined from other public records that are available.”[11])

         The court denies the plaintiffs motion to seal without prejudice.

         IT IS SO ORDERED.

---------

Notes:

[1] Motion to Seal - ECF No. 175.


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