A common concern for business litigants is protecting legitimately confidential matter contained in documents produced during discovery from dissemination to non-parties. The Supreme Court’s decision in Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 47 U.S. 20 (1984), confirmed that discovery material can be shielded from the public eye—commonly through a protective order—but once that material is filed with the court, any document that affects the disposition of litigation is presumptively open to public view. Some parties, pointing to Fed. R. Civ. P. Rule 5(d), have suggested that any document filed with a court “has been used in [a court] proceeding,” and has possibly influenced the judicial decision, so must presumptively be made public. That interpretation leaves the producing party (usually the business entity) in a vulnerable position, unable to protect from disclosure confidential documents produced to the opposing party, regardless of whether they are relevant to the issue at hand.
That was the situation faced by the Seventh Circuit in City of Greenville, Illinois v. Syngenta Crop Protection, LLC, No. 13-1626 (Aug. 20, 2014), where a plaintiff filed exhibits in response to a motion to dismiss but did not rely on or even cite to them in argument. The exhibits included internal emails concerning business deliberations that the defendant wanted to remain private. The district court observed that, since the plaintiff hadn’t relied on the exhibits, the court would not review them. Because it had ignored the documents, the district court held that they need not be disclosed to the public. A third-party intervened and asked the Seventh Circuit to extend the presumption of public disclosure to every non-privileged document that reaches the courthouse.
The court refused, confirming that public access depends on whether a document “influenced or underpinned the judicial decision.” While filing of documents might support an inference of influence, that is not always the case, as here. Otherwise, the court said, Seattle Times’ protection of discovery materials would be toothless. This result suggests that litigants should proactively take steps to shield from disclosure confidential documents inappropriately filed by opposing counsel and not relied on by the court.