Doe v. Doe, COA17-1368

CourtCourt of Appeal of North Carolina (US)
Citation823 S.E.2d 583
Docket NumberNo. COA17-1368,COA17-1368
Parties John DOE, by and Through His Guardian ad Litem, et al., Plaintiffs, v. John DOE, et al., Defendants.
Decision Date18 December 2018

No brief filed for plaintiffs.

Player McLean, LLP, by James A. McLean, III, Fayetteville; and McCoy Wiggins Cleveland & McLean PLLC, by Richard M. Wiggins, Fayetteville; and Beaver, Courie, Sternlicht, Hearp & Broadfoot, P.A., by H. Gerald Beaver and David T. Courie, Sr., Fayetteville, for defendants-appellees.

Essex Richards, P.A., by Jonathan E. Buchan, Natalie D. Potter, and Caitlin H. Walton, Charlotte; and by John J. Korzen, for appellant DB North Carolina Holdings, Inc. d/b/a The Fayetteville Observer.

Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC, Raleigh, by Hugh Stevens, for amici curiae.

STROUD, Judge.

Appellant DB North Carolina Holdings, Inc. d/b/a/ The Fayetteville Observer ("Newspaper") appeals from the trial court’s orders permanently sealing the entire court file and denying its motion for access. Newspaper contends that the trial court’s orders sealing this file were unconstitutional under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 18 of the North Carolina Constitution because they did not apply available alternatives to sealing the entire file and this measure was not narrowly tailored. We agree that the orders sealing an entire court file, even including the date of filing and names of counsel, guardians ad litem and the trial court, are overbroad. The public, including Newspaper, has a presumptive right of access to court files under the North Carolina and United States Constitutions as well as North Carolina’s Public Records Act. The trial court was correct in concluding there is a compelling public interest in protecting juvenile plaintiffs, who were victims of sexual abuse, but this interest cannot justify sealing the entire file permanently; the documents in the file can be redacted to protect the identities of the juveniles. We vacate the trial court’s sealing orders, reverse the trial court’s order denying Newspaper’s motion for access, and remand for the trial court to hold a hearing to consider the proper extent of redaction and sealing as discussed below and to enter an new order opening the file with these limited redactions.

I. Background

The court file sealed by the trial court involves a lawsuit based upon "allegations of sexual abuse committed against minors" by one of the defendants. On 22 November 2016, the same day the complaint was filed, the trial court entered a Temporary Order to Seal the court file entirely.1 On 14 December 2016, the trial court approved a settlement of the minor plaintiffs' claims and entered an Order to Seal which permanently sealed the file, and the case was voluntarily dismissed. On 3 July 2017, Newspaper filed a motion to intervene and for access to court records under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.1, "for the limited purpose of seeking to have [the trial court] enter an order unsealing the court file in this case and granting [Newspaper] and the public access to this file." Because the underlying file is sealed in its entirety, our background is brief and predominantly based on the undisputed "facts" as set out in Newspaper’s motion.2 Newspaper’s motion stated:

[Newspaper] is informed and believes that this case involves civil claims for negligence and has been sealed in its entirety, apparently from its inception in November, 2016. [Newspaper] has sought access to this file through requests to the Cumberland County Clerk of Court and has been informed that the entire case file is sealed by order of a Superior Court Judge.
At the current time, there are no documents in this file which are available for public review....
There is no motion for public review in the file seeking the sealing of the file, no order in the public file directing that the entire file, or any portion thereof, be sealed from public view, and no findings of fact or law available for public review suggesting the basis for initially sealing the file or for keeping it sealed. The public file does not reflect whether the file was sealed at the request of the plaintiff or of the defendant, with the consent of all parties, over the objection of a party, or sua sponte . The file does not reflect the names of counsel for plaintiff or defendant.
Movant understands that this sealed civil action likely involves civil claims that relate to, or parallel, charges asserted in a criminal action currently pending in the state trial courts of South Carolina. That criminal case has been the subject of substantial public interest and attention over the past nine months. At the outset of that criminal case, the South Carolina trial court entered an order on September 19, 2016 (file-stamped October 6, 2016) prohibiting various trial participants, including the alleged victims and their family members, from making any extrajudicial statements about the case. That order, which also effectively sealed the contents of the court file, was dissolved by a June 5, 2017 order upon the motion of The Fayetteville Observer . The court files in the South Carolina criminal case are now open for public inspection.
For the reasons set forth below, [Newspaper], pursuant to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the North Carolina Constitution, Article I, § 18, and N.C.G.S. § 7A-109, seeks access to the above-described court records maintained by the Cumberland County Clerk of Court. [Newspaper] respectfully asks this Court to unseal this court file and to direct the Clerk of Court to promptly make them available to [Newspaper] and to the public.

On 2 August 2017, the trial court entered an order denying Newspaper’s motion. Newspaper filed notice of appeal to this Court from the trial court’s December 2016 order sealing the file, any prior sealing orders, and from the order denying its motion for access.

II. Motion to Dismiss

Defendants filed a motion to partially dismiss Newspaper’s appeal,3 arguing:

The Court of Appeals should both deny [Newspaper]’s current motion, in toto , and dismiss all of [Newspaper]’s appeal except as to its statutory motion for access, in that (1) [Newspaper] was not a specifically aggrieved party concerning these matters, and, therefore, did not have standing to appeal the same; (2) even if [Newspaper] had such standing, which is denied, [Newspaper]’s notice of appeal is untimely and, therefore, this Court is without jurisdiction to address the same and (3) the Order Denying Access is quite detailed and specific and it is both unnecessary and in contravention of the Trial Court’s Virmani analysis to grant [Newspaper]’s attorneys even limited access.

Newspaper filed its response to defendants' motion on 8 February 2018, and this Court referred the motion to the panel assigned to hear this appeal.

a. Standing

Defendants note that Newspaper did not seek to intervene but only sought access to the court file under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.1. Defendants argue that Newspaper has only a "general interest" in the case, the same as any member of the general public may have, but is not a "specifically aggrieved" party with standing to appeal the order sealing the file. Defendants compare this case to In re Duke Energy Corp. , 234 N.C. App. 20, 760 S.E.2d 740 (2014), where "NC WARN, the self-proclaimed public watchdog group, sought to intervene in [an] investigative proceeding and ‘assist’ the Utilities Commission in keeping this alleged impropriety from increasing the energy costs for all North Carolina ratepayers." Defendants concede this case is "not directly on point" but argue it is instructive. But In re Duke Energy Corp. is simply not applicable in this context. First, it addressed a motion to intervene. Newspaper concedes that it was not seeking to intervene and the trial court did not address intervention. In addition, this Court discussed NC WARN’s status as an "aggrieved party" under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 62-90, which addresses the right of appeal from a ruling by the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Id. at 36, 760 S.E.2d at 750. Here, Newspaper’s claim to access was filed under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.1, a statute which sets forth the procedure for obtaining access to a sealed court file.

In Virmani v. Presbyterian Health Services Corp. , 350 N.C. 449, 515 S.E.2d 675 (1999), the plaintiff physician sued a hospital regarding its suspension of his medical staff privileges. The Charlotte Observer filed a motion to intervene in the case and sought access to sealed medical peer review committee records. Id. at 457, 515 S.E.2d at 682. Regarding the claim for intervention, the North Carolina Supreme Court concluded that The Charlotte Observer’s interest in the civil case was "only indirect or contingent" and therefore not subject to intervention as a matter of right under N.C. R. Civ. P. 24(a) and that the trial court had not erred in denying permissive intervention under Rule 24. Id. at 460, 515 S.E.2d at 683. The Supreme Court concluded that "the Observer had alternative means of obtaining a full and timely review of the issue it sought to raise without being allowed to intervene as a party and unduly delay the adjudication of the rights of the original parties." Id . at 462, 515 S.E.2d at 684.

Soon after Virmani , in 2002, our General Assembly enacted N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.1 which "establish[ed] a civil procedure for hearing and determining claims of access to documents and to testimony in civil judicial proceedings and shall not be deemed or construed to limit, expand, change or otherwise preempt any provisions of the substantive law that define or declare the rights and restrictions with respect to claims of access." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.1(f) (2017). The statute does not require a person or entity seeking access to a court file or judicial proceeding to be a party to the case or to have any particularized interest in the case. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-72.1(a). It provides that "[a]ny person...

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