The Fourth Circuit ruled this week on the question whether a company has the right to secretly litigate in order to protect its reputation, thus preventing the public from knowing about the basis of the complaint. In trying to keep a complaint about one of its products out of a government product safety database, the company litigated in secret with secret/anonymous plaintiffs, complete with secret evidence and even a partially secret ruling, says Scott Michelman, a staff attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C., who litigated the case Company Doe v. Public Citizen. The Fourth Circuit ruled against the company and remanded the case.
Michelman opined that the ruling in this case, fundamentally about secret litigation, is critical so that the public can oversee the works of its courts, hold judges accountable, and enable the public to participate in the proceedings. The ruling and its impact also help to support the Consumer Product Safety database, which is a tremendously useful tool for consumers, and "should not be undermined by secret litigation that could tie up or eliminate the postings of consumer complaints."
Michelman says the Fourth Circuit recognized in its ruling that the public interest tilted strongly in favor of revealing the name of the company and unsealing court records. The right to know by the public takes precedence over a company’s right to privacy in litigation. "The public has an inherent interest in knowing what the government is doing and how the tools like the Consumer Product Safety database, which is mandated by Congress, are going to work," Michelman explains.
The Fourth Circuit will now send the case back down to the District Court, ordering the record to be unsealed in its entirety, at which time the public will learn the name of the company, the evidence presented and how the judge ruled and why.
Scott Michelman is a staff attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington, D.C. As a public interest litigator, Michelman has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and several federal and state trial courts around the country. On behalf of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, he has spoken with several media outlets, including television, radio, and print, on a variety of issues. We appreciate his joining The Legal Broadcast Network to review this topic. For more information on Scott Michelman, click here. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of Sequence Media Group.