RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A company that sued to keep a complaint about one of its products out of a publicly accessible federal database was improperly allowed to wage its battle in secret, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the public's right to access to judicial records trumps any possible damage to the company's reputation and bottom line. The court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. in Maryland with orders to unseal it and reveal the company's identity.
According to the appeals court, the case is the first to challenge implementation of a database mandated by the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. The company sued to keep a report about one of its products off the database established by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2011. The firm disputed the accuracy of the report by an unidentified local government agency, which attributed an infant's death to the product.
"Regrettably, the district court allowed the entire litigation — from filing to judgment — to occur behind closed doors, keeping all documents filed in the case under seal, not even reflected on the public docket," appeals court Judge Henry Floyd wrote in the unanimous opinion. "As a result, neither the press nor the public was able to monitor the litigation as it unfolded."
Williams also allowed the company to file the lawsuit under the pseudonym "Company Doe."
Three consumer advocacy groups — Public Citizen, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumers' Union — challenged the district court's secret proceedings. The appeals court agreed with them that "the district court's sealing order violates the public's right of access under the First Amendment" and that Williams erred in allowing the company to litigate the case under an assumed name.
"The ruling is a complete victory for consumers and a strong vindication of the First Amendment imperative to conduct litigation in the open," Public Citizen attorney Scott Michelman said in a statement. "This decision will stand as a bulwark against the conduct of secret litigation such as occurred in this case."
The company could appeal the ruling to the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. Company attorney Baruch Abraham Fellner did not immediately return a telephone message.