Ctr. for Auto Safety v. Chrysler Grp., LLC

Citation809 F.3d 1092
Decision Date11 January 2016
Docket NumberNo. 15–55084.,15–55084.
Parties The CENTER FOR AUTO SAFETY, Intervenor–Appellant, v. CHRYSLER GROUP, LLC, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (9th Circuit)

Jennifer D. Bennett (argued) and Leslie A. Bailey, Public Justice PC, Oakland, CA, for IntervenorAppellant.

Thomas H. Dupree, Jr. (argued) and Sarah G. Boyce, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Washington, D.C.; Kathy A. Wisniewski, John W. Rogers, and Stephen A. D'Aunoy, Thompson Coburn LLP, St. Louis, MO; Rowena Santos, Thompson Coburn LLP, Los Angeles, CA, for DefendantAppellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Dean D. Pregerson, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. 2:13–cv–08080–DDP–VBK.

Before: SANDRA S. IKUTA and JOHN B. OWENS, Circuit Judges and WILLIAM K. SESSIONS,* District Judge.

Opinion by Judge OWENS

; Concurrence by Judge SESSIONS; Dissent by Judge IKUTA.


OWENS, Circuit Judge:

The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) appeals from the district court's order denying CAS's motions to intervene and unseal documents filed in a putative class action lawsuit between Chrysler Group, LLC (Chrysler) and certain named plaintiffs. Because the district court applied the incorrect standard when evaluating the motion to unseal these documents, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.


In 2013, plaintiffs filed a putative class action alleging defects in a part found in certain Chrysler vehicles.1 As part of the discovery process, the parties entered into a stipulated protective order. The protective order permitted each party to designate certain documents as "confidential," and required any party that later wished to attach a "confidential" document to a court pleading to apply to do so under seal.

In 2014, plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to require Chrysler to notify the proposed class of the alleged risks its vehicles presented. Plaintiffs and Chrysler attached "confidential" discovery documents to their memoranda supporting and opposing the motion. Consistent with the stipulated protective order, both parties applied to the district court to file the documents under seal, and the district court granted the motions. The district court eventually denied the motion for preliminary injunction.

Shortly before the district court denied plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction, CAS filed motions to intervene and unseal the "confidential" documents filed to support and oppose the motion for preliminary injunction. CAS argued that only "compelling reasons" could justify keeping these documents under seal, while Chrysler contended that it need only show "good cause" to keep them from the public's view.

The district court reviewed the relevant Ninth Circuit case law and other district courts' attempts to apply it to a motion for preliminary injunction. While ordinarily a party must show "compelling reasons" to keep a court document under seal, Kamakana v. City & County of Honolulu, 447 F.3d 1172, 1178 (9th Cir.2006), the district court relied on language in our cases which provides that when a party is attempting to keep records attached to a "non-dispositive" motion under seal, it need only show "good cause," id. at 1180. While recognizing that "[t]here is little clarity as to what, exactly, constitutes a ‘dispositive’ motion," and that our circuit has not articulated the difference between a dispositive and nondispositive motion,2 the district court decided to read "dispositive" to mean that unless the motion could literally lead to the "final determination on some issue," a party need show only good cause to keep attached documents under seal. That was especially true in this case, the district court believed, as the motion for preliminary injunction here sought "notice of potential problems ... to thousands of purchasers," and "was not a motion to temporarily grant the relief ultimately sought in [the] underlying suit." Accordingly, the district court found that the motion for preliminary injunction here was nondispositive, applied the good cause standard to the documents filed under seal, and concluded that good cause existed to keep them from the public's view.3


We review a district court's decision to unseal court records for an abuse of discretion. Blum v. Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith, Inc., 712 F.3d 1349, 1352 (9th Cir.2013). Where "the district court's decision turns on a legal question, however, its underlying legal determination is subject to de novo review." San Jose Mercury News, Inc. v. U.S. Dist. Court—N.D. Cal. (San Jose), 187 F.3d 1096, 1100 (9th Cir.1999).

"We have jurisdiction because an order denying a motion to unseal or seal documents is appealable either as a final order under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 or as a collateral order." Oliner v. Kontrabecki, 745 F.3d 1024, 1025 (9th Cir.2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

A. Standard to File Documents Under Seal

"It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents." Nixon v. Warner Commnc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597, 98 S.Ct. 1306, 55 L.Ed.2d 570 (1978). Following the Supreme Court's lead, "we start with a strong presumption in favor of access to court records." Foltz v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 331 F.3d 1122, 1135 (9th Cir.2003). The presumption of access is "based on the need for federal courts, although independent—indeed, particularly because they are independent—to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice." United States v. Amodeo (Amodeo II ), 71 F.3d 1044, 1048 (2d Cir.1995) ; see also Valley Broad. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court—D. Nev., 798 F.2d 1289, 1294 (9th Cir.1986) (explaining that the presumption of public access "promot[es] the public's understanding of the judicial process and of significant public events").

Accordingly, "[a] party seeking to seal a judicial record then bears the burden of overcoming this strong presumption by meeting the ‘compelling reasons' standard." Kamakana, 447 F.3d at 1178. Under this stringent standard, a court may seal records only when it finds "a compelling reason and articulate[s] the factual basis for its ruling, without relying on hypothesis or conjecture." Id. at 1179. The court must then "conscientiously balance[ ] the competing interests of the public and the party who seeks to keep certain judicial records secret." Id. (quoting Foltz, 331 F.3d at 1135 ) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). What constitutes a "compelling reason" is "best left to the sound discretion of the trial court." Nixon, 435 U.S. at 599, 98 S.Ct. 1306. Examples include when a court record might be used to "gratify private spite or promote public scandal," to circulate "libelous" statements, or "as sources of business information that might harm a litigant's competitive standing." Id. at 598–99, 98 S.Ct. 1306.

Despite this strong preference for public access, we have "carved out an exception," Foltz, 331 F.3d at 1135, for sealed materials attached to a discovery motion unrelated to the merits of a case, see Phillips ex rel. Estates of Byrd v. Gen. Motors Corp., 307 F.3d 1206, 1213–14 (9th Cir.2002). Under this exception, a party need only satisfy the less exacting "good cause" standard. Foltz, 331 F.3d at 1135. The "good cause" language comes from Rule 26(c)(1), which governs the issuance of protective orders in the discovery process: "The court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense...." Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(c). "Applying a strong presumption of access to documents a court has already decided should be shielded from the public would surely undermine, and possibly eviscerate, the broad power of the district court to fashion protective orders," and thereby undermine Rule 26(c). Phillips, 307 F.3d at 1213 ; see also Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 33, 104 S.Ct. 2199, 81 L.Ed.2d 17 (1984) (explaining that discovery is largely "conducted in private as a matter of modern practice," so the public is not presumed to have a right of access to it); Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., 805 F.2d 1, 13 (1st Cir.1986) ("There is no tradition of public access to discovery, and requiring a trial court to scrutinize carefully public claims of access would be incongruous with the goals of the discovery process.").

When deciding what test to apply to a motion to unseal a particular court filing—the presumptive "compelling reasons" standard or the "good cause" exception—we have sometimes deployed the terms "dispositive" and "non-dispositive." For example, in Phillips, the Los Angeles Times moved to unseal confidential settlement information that General Motors produced in discovery under a protective order and was subsequently attached to a discovery sanctions motion. 307 F.3d at 1208–10. The district court granted the motion to unseal. Id. at 1208–09. In reversing that decision, we stressed the special role that protective orders play, that "[m]uch of the information that surfaces during pretrial discovery may be unrelated, or only tangentially related, to the underlying cause of action," and reasoned that it made "little sense to render the district court's protective order useless simply because the plaintiffs attached a sealed discovery document to a nondispositive sanctions motion filed with the court." Id. at 1212–13 (quoting in part Seattle Times Co., 467 U.S. at 33, 104 S.Ct. 2199 ); see also Kamakana, 447 F.3d at 1179–80 (explaining that the sealed records in Phillips were "not directly relevant to the merits of the case"). Applying the good cause standard from Rule 26(c) as an exception for discovery-related motions makes sense, as the private interests of litigants are "the only...

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