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Pansy v. Borough of Stroudsburg

filed: May 2, 1994; As Corrected May 4, 1994.

JOHN A. PANSY, PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE,
v.
BOROUGH OF STROUDSBURG; HAROLD A. BENTZONI; KATHRYN MIKELS; JOHN W. OSBORNE, II; WILLIAM REBER; MARY JEAN KNAPIK; MARYANN WEST KOWALSHYN; RICHARD F. OSSWALD; CARL R. ROGERS DEFENDANTS/APPELLEES, V. OTTAWAY NEWSPAPERS, INC. T/A POCONO RECORD, RONALD F. BOUCHARD; PENNSYLVANIA NEWSPAPER PUBLISHERS ASSOCIATION, INTERVENORS/APPELLANTS.



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. D.C. Civ. No. 91-00682

Before: Stapleton, Cowen and Alito, Circuit Judges.

Author: Cowen

Opinion OF THE COURT

COWEN, Circuit Judge.

This appeal raises several questions of first impression in this court concerning the ability of intervenors to challenge orders of confidentiality pertaining to settlement agreements. These questions are extremely important in light of the widespread and increasing use by district courts of confidentiality orders to facilitate settlements, and the consequential sacrifice of public access to the information deemed confidential by such orders.

Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. ("Ottaway"), The Pocono Record ("the Record"), Ronald F. Bouchard and the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association (collectively, "the Newspapers") filed this action in the district court seeking to intervene in an action that had been settled between John A. Pansy and the Borough of Stroudsburg ("the Borough"). The Newspapers' purpose for intervening was to gain access to the Settlement Agreement which was entered into between Pansy and the Borough. The Newspapers argued that either the Agreement was a judicial record to which it had a right of access, or that the Order of Confidentiality which the court entered concerning the Agreement should be modified or vacated. The district court ruled that the Newspapers' motion for intervention was untimely. In the alternative, the district court held that the Agreement was not a judicial record, and therefore not accessible under the right of access doctrine. The district court denied the Newspapers' Motion to Intervene and Motion to Reconsider, Vacate or Modify the Order of Confidentiality. This appeal followed.

For the reasons stated below, we will reverse the order of the district court and direct that the Newspapers be permitted to intervene. We will remand the case to the district court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

The district court entered a final order denying the Motion to Intervene and the Motion to Amend, Vacate or Modify by the Newspapers. Accordingly, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. See Bank of Am. Nat'l Trust and Sav. Ass'n v. Hotel Rittenhouse Assocs., 800 F.2d 339, 341 n.2 (3d Cir. 1986).

The standard of review for each issue raised in this appeal will be discussed in the analysis of the issue. Where this appeal raises a legal question, we exercise plenary review. Prisco v. Talty, 993 F.2d 21, 24 (3d Cir. 1993).

Discussion

A. BACKGROUND

In May, 1991, Pansy filed an action in the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the Borough violated his civil rights. Prior to Pansy's filing that action, he had been Chief of the Borough's Police Department. While Chief, he was investigated and later arrested by agents of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office. Pansy was charged with offenses relating to the alleged improper handling of parking meter money. The Borough subsequently suspended him from the force and demoted him to patrolman. The demotion and suspension, in turn, led to Pansy's filing a civil rights action. Ultimately, Pansy was tried and acquitted of all criminal charges.

Pansy and the Borough agreed to settle the civil rights action and the Settlement Agreement was presented to and reviewed by the district court. The Newspapers were not involved with the settlement. On June 5, 1992, the district court entered an order indicating that it had reviewed the terms of settlement and directing that the case be considered dismissed with prejudice upon the expiration of sixty days or consummation of settlement. The order also stated that "the terms of settlement are confidential and the parties hereby are ordered and directed to abide by the order of confidentiality." App. at 54-55. The Settlement Agreement was never filed with the district court.

On October 22, 1992, the Record sent the Borough a request for information pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act ("the Act"), Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 65, §§ 66.1-.4. (1959 & Supp. 1993). The request sought information and documents pertaining to the civil rights case, including the Settlement Agreement.

On November 25, 1992, the Borough sent a response to the Record which included some information concerning the monetary cost to the Borough in settling the case. However, the Borough refused to provide access to the Settlement Agreement itself, and related documents, ostensibly because the district court's June 5, 1992 Order of Confidentiality prohibited its divulgence. The Borough has continued to refuse to provide the Settlement Agreement to the Newspapers.

On December 23, 1992, the Newspapers filed a petition in the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County, Pennsylvania, challenging the Borough's refusal to produce documents pursuant to §§ 66.3 and 66.4 of the Right to Know Act. By order of that court, the state court litigation has been stayed pending the resolution of this case.

On December 23, 1992, the Newspapers also filed the motions in the district court which are the subject of this appeal. They filed a Motion to Intervene in the settled civil rights action between Pansy and the Borough, as well as a Motion to Reconsider, Vacate, or Modify the district court's June 5, 1992 Order. Specifically, the Newspapers sought the Settlement Agreement as a judicial record. In the alternative, they sought to modify or vacate the June 5, 1992 Order of Confidentiality so they could obtain the Settlement Agreement pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act.

The district court concluded that the Motion to Intervene was untimely. Alternatively, the district court addressed the merits of the right of access claim. It found that even if intervention was proper, the Settlement Agreement was not a judicial record because it was never filed with the court and, therefore, the Newspapers had no right to obtain the Settlement Agreement under the right of access doctrine. The district court also denied the Motion to Reconsider, Vacate or Modify the Order of Confidentiality.

B. ANALYSIS

1. Standing

The appellees have not challenged the Newspapers' standing in this appeal. Nevertheless, we are obliged to consider whether the Newspapers have standing to intervene in this action to either obtain the sought-after Settlement Agreement under the right of access doctrine, or to attack the Order of Confidentiality so that they may seek access to the document under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act. The requirements for an Article III case or controversy were stated in Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 102 S. Ct. 752, 70 L. Ed. 2d 700 (1982):

Art. III requires the party who invokes the court's authority to show that he personally has suffered some actual or threatened injury as a result of the putatively illegal conduct of the defendant, and that the injury fairly can be traced to the challenged action and is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.

Id. at 472, 102 S. Ct. at 758 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

We have routinely found, as have other courts, that third parties have standing to challenge protective orders and confidentiality orders*fn1 in an effort to obtain access to information or judicial proceedings. E.g., Brown v. Advantage Eng'g, Inc., 960 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir. 1992); Public Citizen v. Liggett Group Inc., 858 F.2d 775, 787 & n.12 (1st Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1030, 109 S. Ct. 838, 102 L. Ed. 2d 970 (1989); In re Alexander Grant & Co. Litig., 820 F.2d 352, 354 (11th Cir. 1987); United States v. Cianfrani, 573 F.2d 835, 845 (3d Cir. 1978); City of Hartford v. Chase, 733 F. Supp. 533, 534 (D. Conn. 1990), rev'd on other grounds, 942 F.2d 130 (2d Cir. 1991). The Newspapers may have standing notwithstanding the fact that "they assert rights that may belong to a broad portion of the public at large. So long as the 'injury in fact' alleged by each intervenor is 'a distinct and palpable injury to himself,' standing should not be denied 'even if it is an injury shared by a large class of other possible litigants.'" Cianfrani, 573 F.2d at 845 (quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501, 95 S. Ct. 2197, 2206, 45 L. Ed. 2d 343 (1975)).

Moreover, to establish standing, it is not necessary for litigants to demonstrate that they will prevail on the merits of their claim. See Warth, 422 U.S. at 500, 95 S. Ct. at 2206. Therefore, in determining whether the Newspapers have standing, we need not determine that the Newspapers will ultimately obtain access to the sought-after Settlement Agreement. We need only find that the Order of Confidentiality being challenged presents an obstacle to the Newspapers' attempt to obtain access. The Newspapers have met the standing requirements in this case: they have shown that the putatively invalid Confidentiality Order which the district court entered interferes with their attempt to obtain access to the Settlement Agreement, either under the right of access doctrine or pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act.

2. Intervention

The district court denied the Newspapers' Motion for Intervention. We normally review the district court's denial of the Newspapers' Motion for Intervention for abuse of discretion. Harris v. Pernsley, 820 F.2d 592, 597 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 947, 108 S. Ct. 336, 98 L. Ed. 2d 363 (1987). However, because the question raised is whether the district court applied the correct legal standard for intervention, we exercise plenary review. Cf. Savarese v. Agriss, 883 F.2d 1194, 1200 (3d Cir. 1989).

The district court denied the Newspapers' Motion for Intervention for two reasons. First, it determined that the Motion for Intervention was untimely because the case had already been settled for at least six months. Second, it found that the Newspapers did not demonstrate that their interest in the case had anything in common with a question of law or fact in the main action and therefore did not meet the requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 24(b)(2).*fn2

The district court applied incorrect legal standards in denying the Newspapers' Motion for Intervention. As to the district court's finding that the Newspapers have not shown that their claim has anything in common with a question of law or fact in the case, the district court ruled contrary to a forming consensus in the federal courts. We agree with other courts that have held that the procedural device of permissive intervention is appropriately used to enable a litigant who was not an original party to an action to challenge protective or confidentiality orders entered in that action. E.g., Beckman Indus., Inc. v. International Ins. Co., 966 F.2d 470, 473-74 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, U.S. , 113 S. Ct. 197 (1992); United Nuclear Corp. v. Cranford Ins. Co., 905 F.2d 1424, 1427 (10th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 1073, 111 S. Ct. 799 (1991); Public Citizen v. Liggett Group, Inc., 858 F.2d 775, 783-87 (1st Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 1030, 109 S. Ct. 838, 102 L. Ed. 2d 970 (1989); Meyer Goldberg, Inc., of Lorain v. Fisher Foods, Inc., 823 F.2d 159, 161-64 (6th Cir. 1987); Martindell v. International Tel. & Tel. Corp., 594 F.2d 291, 294 (2d Cir. 1979); In re Beef Indus. Antitrust Litig., 589 F.2d 786, 788-89 (5th Cir. 1979); City of Hartford v. Chase, 733 F. Supp. ...


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