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No Sealed Records in ‘Trafficking Victims’ Suit

An Alexandria U.S. District Court denies the parties’ joint motion to seal court files in this suit filed by plaintiff, who formerly worked as a domestic servant in defendants’ homes in the U.S. and in Qatar, alleging violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Fair Labor Standards Act and violations of state laws.

Joint petition

On May 12, 2014, a default judgment was entered in favor of plaintiff and against defendants. The parties then entered into a confidential settlement agreement on Jan. 17, 2017, and on Feb. 14, 2017, the court entered a stipulation and order vacating the default judgment and dismissing the matter with prejudice and without costs. As a separate condition of the settlement agreement, the parties agreed to jointly petition the court to seal the court record.

The public has a common law right to access, inspect and copy court records and documents. That right is not absolute, however. A party seeking to overcome the common law presumption of access bears the burden of showing some significant interest that outweighs the presumption.

Here, the parties do not assert a compelling governmental interest that necessitates or justifies the sealing of documents, nor do they assert a significant interest that outweighs the public’s common law right of access to judicial records.

The procedural requirements for sealing have been satisfied here. The court has provided public notice of the parties’ request to seal all documents filed in this case and an opportunity for interested members of the public to object to this request. The court has received no objections to the request. However, even where all litigants make the sealing request and no one objects, the court must engage in a careful deliberation on the issue.

First, in support of their motion, the parties cite the fact that there has been no adversarial process engaged in this matter and a settlement agreement was obtained without judicial intervention.

The documents the parties in the present matter seek to seal clearly fall under the presumption of public access as they are documents presented to the court to invoke its powers or affect its decisions. The decision to overcome the presumption of access is not to be made lightly, and the public’s access to judicial records and documents may only be abrogated in unusual circumstances. The court finds the sui generis scenario claimed by the parties to be unsupported by relevant case law and the circumstances surrounding the motion not unusual enough to overcome the public’s presumption of access that can only be rebutted if countervailing interests heavily outweigh the public interests in access.

The parties also claim the allegations contained in the complaint detail sensitive information and could lead to reputational injury of the parties. The parties have merely provided the court with a hypothetical scenario where the information in court documents could be used for improper purpose. They have not offered any real evidence that such an event might occur if the record were to be left open to public access.

The court denies the parties’ request to sever public access to the documents and records filed in this case.

Butigan v. Al-Malki (Lee) No. 1:13cv514, July 20, 2017; USDC at Alexandria, Va.; Don B. Hardin Jr. for plaintiff; Nina J. Ginsberg for defendant. VLW 017-3-374, 6 pp.

VLW 017-3-374