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MFIA Wins Appeal Seeking Access to Sealed Records; Ruling Guarantees Strong Protections for Newsgatherers

Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum (MFIA) scored another victory this month when a New York state appellate court ruled unanimously that documents in a civil lawsuit alleging corporate corruption were improperly sealed, and clarified the scope of the constitutional access right in the New York courts.

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, First Judicial Department, released its decision in Mosallem v. Berenson on July 20. Recognizing the public’s “powerful interest in open court proceedings,” the First Department concluded that the “defendants have failed to meet their substantial burden of establishing good cause to seal the exhibits” and rejected a litany of alternate rationales as permissible bases for sealing. The decision expressly affirmed the First Amendment right of access to court records and outlined the steep burdens that must be placed on parties seeking to seal documents.

MFIA members Patrick Kabat ’10, Jeremy Kutner ’12, and Jeff Love ’12 represented freelance journalist Jim Edwards on the appeal under the supervision of David Schulz ’78, a media lawyer with the firm of Levine, Sullivan, Koch & Schulz.

In the appeal, Edwards sought access to documents filed as part of a civil lawsuit alleging corporate corruption at a major advertising agency. The documents were held in a judge’s chambers for more than two years and ultimately sealed over Edwards’ objections. In its briefs, MFIA argued that the documents were sealed for inappropriate reasons and that the extended delay in ruling itself violated the public’s right of access. (Read February 22 brief. Read April 2 brief.)

The decision represents a significant step toward greater openness of judicial records, according to Kabat, the principal author of the appellant’s briefs and a founding member of MFIA.

“This is a big win for the newsgathering enterprise,” said Kabat. “In addition to vindicating Mr. Edwards’ right to inspect the improperly sealed documents, the First Department has conclusively rejected several improper sealing rationales and has clearly articulated the strict standards necessary to protect the public’s right of access to court records.”

Appellate rulings like this one benefit all reporters who rely on prompt access to public documents, said David McCraw, Vice President and Assistant General Counsel for The New York Times Company. “The decision is particularly welcome because there are so few comprehensive appellate decisions about unsealing in New York. The decision makes clear that civil litigants have a heavy burden to meet to justify sealing and that the trial courts have an obligation to address sealing motions promptly.”

MFIA, an initiative of the Information Society Project and the Knight Law & Media Program at Yale Law School, was founded by four Yale Law School students to defend the public’s right of access to government information and to support traditional and emerging forms of newsgathering. Through MFIA, Yale Law students work under the supervision of veteran media attorneys who volunteer their time pro bono on cases where private actors lack the resources to prosecute the public’s access rights.