United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Augusta Division
SHERECIA WILLIS, Individually, and C.W., a Minor Child, by and Through James S. Murray, Guardian Ad Litem, Plaintiffs,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; VENKATESAN GORANTLA, M.D.; AUGUSTA HOSPITAL, LLC d/b/a TRINITY HOSPITAL OF AUGUSTA; and AUGUSTA PHYSICIAN SERVICES, LLC, Defendants.
RANDAL HALL JUDGE
the Court is Plaintiffs' Verified Petition to Approve
Settlement as to Defendants Augusta Hospital, Augusta
Physician Services, and Venkatesan Gorantla,  Attorney-Client
Contract, and Disbursement of Settlement Funds, and Motion to
Seal Court Files.(Doc. 222.) Because Plaintiff C.W. is a
minor, the Court must approve the settlement agreement and
payment of counsel fees and other expenses out of the
settlement fund. LR 17.1, SDGa. For the following reasons,
the Court DENIES Plaintiffs' motion as
to their request to seal and DENIES WITHOUT
PREJUDICE Plaintiffs' motion as to their request
to approve the settlement agreement.
request that the Court "permanently seal the
Attorney-Client Contract, Settlement Agreement, Settlement
Disbursement Statement, and the terms of the Structured
Settlement" (collectively, "Settlement
Documents"). (Mot. to Seal & Approve Settlement,
¶ 10 (emphasis omitted).) Plaintiffs move to seal these
documents because: (1) "There is an inherent expectation
of privacy with regard to the terms and conditions of
settlements reached between private parties to civil
lawsuits"; (2)" [A] s an express condition of the
settlement, the parties agreed that the amount of the
settlement will remain confidential from disclosure";
and (3) "[T]he harm to the privacy rights of a minor
clearly and unequivocally outweighs any perceived public
Expectation of Privacy
Plaintiffs' first argument, it is true that, generally,
settlement agreements are private. Because the Court must
review the Settlement Documents, however, they are judicial
records. Webb v. CVS Caremark Corp., No. 5:11-CV-106
(CAR), 2011 WL 6743284, at *1 (M.D. Ga. Dec. 23, 2011);
see also Jessup v. Luther, 277 F.3d 926, 929-30 (7th
Cir. 2002); Keemar v. Avco Corp., No.
6:06-cv-448-Orl-22DAB, 2007 WL 2696571, at *2 (M.D. Fla.
Sept. 11, 2007) ("By filing the suit, the matter became
this [c]ourt's business, and this [c]ourt conducts
business publically. Having chosen to pursue a claim in a
public court, [the] [p]laintiff must take the burdens of such
forum, as well as its benefits.").
is a common-law presumption that judicial records are public
documents." Hesed El v. Poff, No. CV 118-079,
2018 WL 4688720, at *1 (S.D. Ga. Sept. 29, 2018) (citation
omitted); see also Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns,
Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978); Chicago Tribune Co.
v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1311
(11th Cir. 2001). Consequently, the Settlement Documents are
subject to the presumption of public access. As such,
Plaintiffs' argument that the Settlement Documents should
be sealed simply because they are part of a private
settlement agreement is unpersuasive.
second argument is likewise unconvincing. Neither the
confidentiality clause in the Settlement Agreement nor the
fact that Plaintiffs and Augusta Defendants agreed that the
Settlement Documents should be sealed is a compelling reason
to grant the motion. See Brown v. Advantage Eng'g,
Inc., 960 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir. 1992) ("It is
immaterial whether the sealing of the record is an integral
part of a negotiated settlement agreement between the
parties, even if the settlement comes with the court's
active encouragement. Once a matter is brought before a court
for resolution, it is no longer solely the parties' case,
but also the public's case."); Eiqenberer v.
Tokyo Statesboro GA, LLC, No. CV617-160, 2018 WL
2065942, at *2 (S.D. Ga. May 3, 2018) ("[T]he [c]ourt
needs far more than the parties' agreement that the
settlement agreement should be sealed."); see
also Goesel v. Boley Int'l (H.K.) Ltd.,
738 F.3d 831, 835 (7th Cir. 2013).
C.W.'s Privacy Interests
third argument is the only reason appropriately raised for
sealing the Settlement Documents. The "presumption that
criminal and civil actions should be conducted publicly"
"is instrumental in securing the integrity of the
process." Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1311.
The presumption, however, "may be overcome by a showing
of good cause, which requires 'balancing the asserted
right of access against the other party's interest in
keeping the information confidential.'" Romero
v. Drummond Co., 480 F.3d 1234, 1246 (11th Cir. 2007)
(quoting Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1309).
"Whether good cause exists is decided by the nature and
character of the information in question." Id.
(quoting Chicago Tribune, 263 F.3d at 1315).
cases "involving . . . *the privacy of children,' .
. . the interest in secrecy is compelling."
Eigenberger, 2018 WL 2065942, at *2 (quoting
Jessup, 277 F.3d at 928); see also Clark v.
Bamberger, No. 1:12CV1122-MHT (WO), 2016 WL 1183180, at
*2 (M.D. Ala. Mar. 28, 2016) (Protecting a minor's
privacy is "undoubtedly an important concern."). To
weigh in favor of keeping information about minors secret,
the information generally must be more than the amount of
money received in a settlement. See Wilson v. Am. Motors
Corp., 759 F.2d 1568, 1571 n.4 (11th Cir. 1985) (per
curiam). For example, a minor's interest in privacy is
more compelling when the documents would "expose
confidential educational, medical, or mental-health
information." Clark, 2016 WL 1183180, at *3. In
one case, the Eastern District of North Carolina found that
the settlement amount implied sensitive information about the
minors, which, in part, warranted sealing the settlement
agreement. Mears v. Atl. Se. Airlines, Inc., No.
5:12-CV-613-F, 2014 WL 5018907, at *2 (E.D. N.C. Oct. 7,
2014) . Specifically, the court stated that the amount of the
[T]he relative severity and expected duration of each
minor's emotional and mental injuries (or lack thereof)
in comparison to the other family members, and therefore may
expose the minors to potential public ridicule and
embarrassment in the community and could later make it more
difficult for them to obtain employment.
Id. The court in Mears also found that the
settlement itself contained "highly sensitive medical
information" and noted that a previously filed complaint
contained the minors' full names. Id. But cf.
Clark, 2016 WL 1183180, at *3 (finding the
"financial information in the settlement would expose
nothing about the children other than the amount of money
they were to receive" and that the case was settled and
stating that the parties "do not explain or offer any
evidence showing how [disclosing the ...