Garfield County judge unseals his order sealing libel lawsuit

“Confidential and/or proprietary information” was the justification a Garfield County judge gave for sealing a libel lawsuit the day it was filed in 2017 by the meat-packing industry’s largest contract cleaner.

“The Court finds that under the circumstances presented it is necessary in the interests of justice to keep the material from public record at this time,” Judge Special Judge Jason Seigars wrote in his April 25, 2017, order sealing the case records.

Seigars then sealed that order in contradiction of the state’s Open Records Act. He unsealed it late last month only because of UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s motion to open the case to the public.

Seigars has given Packers Sanitation Services Inc. until Aug. 10 to show why the rest of the case records shouldn’t be public. The company’s response will be filed under seal pending review by Seigars.

Unless confidentiality is required by state law, a judge may seal a court record “only if a compelling privacy interest exists which outweighs the public’s interest in the record,” according to a 2014 amendment to the Open Records Act.

In Seigars’ show cause order July 13, he wrote, “The underlying facts justifying the Court’s orders to seal certain and all documents … were of a nature that their disclosure would have caused irreparable harm and injury to the plaintiff.”

Did a compelling privacy interest outweigh the public’s interest in the record? Or was the defendant, Armando Acosta, posting about what would later be reported in a Bloomberg Businessweek article, America’s Worst Graveyard Shift Is Grinding Up Workers, critical of Packers Sanitation Services. We don’t know.

What we know for certain is that Seigars shouldn’t have sealed his original order closing the case records. Under that 2014 amendment, a judge sealing a case record must issue a public order that shall:

  • Identify the facts which the court relied upon in entering its order;
  • Make conclusions of law specific enough so that the public is aware of the legal basis for the sealing of the record;
  • Utilize the least restrictive means for achieving confidentiality; [and]
  • Be narrowly tailored so that only the portions of the record subject to confidentiality are sealed and the remainder of the record is kept open. (51 O.S. § 24A.30)

Perhaps we’ll know more about the case after Aug. 10.

In the meantime, read the previous post, Calif. law professor seeks judge’s sealed order sealing libel lawsuit in Garfield County, to learn more about district judges who have ignored the 2014 amendment and the reaction of our state Supreme Court.

 

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications
@Joey_Senat
Mass Communication Law in Oklahoma

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, its board of directors or the commentator’s employer. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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