Where a man alleged his former spouse defamed him in a social media post that discussed the details of their divorce, subsequent custody battle and statements pertaining to alleged domestic violence, and the wife submitted the post to the court as part of her motion to dismiss, the court sealed the exhibit.
Rodney Soulsby II, proceeding pro se, filed this diversity suit against his former spouse, Ashlyn Vint, for defamation arising from an alleged social media post Vint made on Nov. 21, 2021. However, a copy of the social media post is not attached to the complaint as an exhibit, nor is the post directly quoted in its allegations. Vint has moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Vint asserts that the court may consider the social media post in ruling on her motion to dismiss because it is referenced in the complaint.
Before the court is Vint’s motion to file a copy of the social media post under seal. In accordance with his court’s local rules, Vint has also tendered to the court, in camera, the document proposed to be sealed. Soulsby has not filed any opposition.
To determine whether the interests in sealing the records outweigh First Amendment considerations, the court must engage in a three-part process. The court must (1) “provide public notice of the request to seal and allow interested parties a reasonable opportunity to object”; (2) “consider less drastic alternatives to sealing the documents”; and (3) “provide specific reasons and factual findings supporting its decision to seal the documents and for rejecting the alternatives.”
Considering these standards, the court will grant Vint’s motion to seal the copy of her social media post. First, the public has received adequate notice of the request to seal because the motion has been filed in the public record for a sufficient time. No member of the public has objected to the motion.
Second, the court has considered less drastic alternatives to sealing, but finds that no alternatives are appropriate. Redactions could not simultaneously protect the integrity of the sensitive allegations in the post and provide the court with a complete record of the relevant statements at issue in this case. This is especially true here because the allegedly defamatory statements predominate over the remaining content in the social media post, such that redacting the document to the extent necessary would prove futile.
Finally, the nature of the statements in question supports the court’s decision to seal. Vint asserts that the statements made in the social media post—made privately and deleted shortly after posting—narrate the details of a divorce and subsequent custody battle. Having reviewed the document in camera, the court agrees that the statements pertain to domestic violence (as well as related efforts by law enforcement) and are highly sensitive in nature. Moreover, access to judicial records has generally been denied “where court files might have become a vehicle for improper purposes,” for example, “where disclosed records may serve as reservoirs of libelous statements for press consumption.”
As such, to the extent the statements are allegedly defamatory (though Vint’s motion to dismiss asserts that the statements made in the post were indeed true), docketing the unsealed copy of the social media post would effectively create a “reservoir of libelous statements” that does not already exist, given that Vint deleted the social media post shortly after initial publication and the court finds no evidence that the post was copied or republished elsewhere.
Defendant’s motion to seal granted.
Soulsby v. Vint, Case No. 5:22-cv-00069, Jan. 18, 2023. WDVA at Harrisonburg (Dillon). VLW 023-3-020. 4 pp.