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In re duPont

August 17, 2010


Appeal from the decision of Superior Court dated 2/12/09 at No. 917 EDA 2008 which affirmed the Court of Common Pleas Delaware County Orphans' Court order dated 2/27/08 at No.0563-1996

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Saylor


ARGUED: March 10, 2010


In this appeal, we consider whether the public has a right of access to the record of proceedings held to declare a person incapacitated, where the record was previously sealed by order of the orphans' court.

In the 1990s, John E. duPont, one of the heirs of the duPont fortune, resided at his 800-acre Delaware County estate, known as Foxcatcher Farm. Being a wrestling enthusiast, he founded a wrestling team called Team Foxcatcher, which maintained training and residence facilities at the farm. Following the death of his mother, duPont began acting erratically, culminating in his January 1996 killing of David Schultz, a member of Team Foxcatcher. See generally Commonwealth v. duPont, 730 A.2d 970, 973-74 (Pa. Super. 1999) (providing additional background to the killing).

Several months after the incident, duPont's relatives sought to protect his significant assets. To that end, they applied for relief in the orphans' court, claiming that duPont was an incapacitated person and requesting the appointment of a guardian.*fn1

The orphans' court granted the relief sought and, upon request, ordered that the record of the proceedings be sealed to protect the family's privacy regarding matters of duPont's physical and mental health, as well as his financial assets.*fn2

In 2007, Appellant Mark DeHaven filed a petition in the orphans' court, seeking access to the sealed record of the incapacitation proceedings to determine whether he was the beneficiary of a trust carved out from duPont's estate.*fn3 According to the allegations in the petition, Appellant: was a member of Team Foxcatcher from 1993 to 1996; performed various duties at duPont's behest from 1997 through 2004 relating to wrestling instruction and farm supervision at Foxcatcher Farm; received a monthly stipend from duPont that was eventually terminated in December 2006; and was assured by duPont that he (Appellant) would not have to worry about health insurance or retirement income, as a trust had been established to handle these items. The estate responded, denying the material allegations in the petition and asserting that neither Appellant nor his attorneys have any legitimate basis to inspect the sealed record.

The orphans' court held a hearing on the matter at which the parties presented oral argument. During argument, Appellant conceded that he had no documentary or testimonial evidence that the record contains information supporting his claim to a trust, although he offered to testify in support of the petition's allegations.*fn4 The court declined the offer, as it viewed such testimony to be irrelevant inasmuch as the court was prepared to assume, arguendo, that Appellant could articulate why he believed a trust might have been created for him. In this latter regard, the court clarified, first, that no specific challenge to the propriety of the original sealing order was being lodged, and second, that the salient legal question was whether the sealed record was now a "true public record" -- i.e., presumptively available for public inspection unless the respondent could demonstrate a continuing need for confidentiality -- or whether Appellant instead bore the burden of showing that circumstances had so changed since the sealing that there was no longer a need to protect the family's privacy. The court also observed that Appellant had not filed a complaint or a praecipe for a writ of summons, and hence, he was apparently attempting to engage in pre-litigation discovery. In an effort at accommodation, the court proposed to inspect the sealed record in camera to see if it could find anything supporting Appellant's allegations. Appellant refused the offer, suggesting that the court was less familiar with the case than he was, and thus, the court might overlook relevant documents.

The orphans' court eventually entered an order denying relief. In a supporting opinion, the court developed that, although the law gives the public a general right of access to judicial proceedings and court records, in many contexts courts have an inherent power to limit the exercise of that right, and may deny access where appropriate. Thus, the orphans' court explained that the public may be temporarily or permanently excluded from court proceedings and records if public or private interests require such exclusion. As applied presently, the court held that proceedings may be closed to the public if the party seeking closure demonstrates that its privacy interest "outweighs the presumption of openness." In re Estate of duPont, No. 563-1996, slip op. at 2 (C.P. Delaware, Orphans' Ct. Div., Feb. 26, 2008) (citing In re M.B., 819 A.2d 59, 62 n.2 (Pa. Super. 2003)). The court concluded by noting that the underlying matter involved a proceeding to declare [duPont] an incapacitated person. The sensitivity and personal nature of such proceedings has been recognized by the Pennsylvania Legislature itself, which incorporated in the statute at 20 Pa.C.S. §5511(a), an authorization for the [c]court to close such proceedings if requested by the alleged incapacitated person. Thus, the good cause for sealing the record in this matter is inherent in the nature of the proceeding and is of no less weight today than it was at the time the [c]court originally ordered the record to be sealed.

Additionally, the [c]court has suggested a less intrusive alternative to unsealing the record, namely, to have an in camera review of the entire file by the [c]court to determine whether any trust document or evidence of such document existed in the record. Petitioner refused such a request insisting that nothing less than personal inspection of the [c]court file by his attorneys would be acceptable. In balancing the competing interests involved, and keeping in mind that Petitioner has yet to even institute any court proceedings to enforce his alleged right as a trust beneficiary, we conclude that the present interests continue to weight [sic] in favor of keeping the record in this matter sealed.

Id. at 2-3.*fn5

A panel of the Superior Court unanimously affirmed. See In re Estate of duPont, 966 A.2d 636 (Pa. Super. 2009).*fn6 The court acknowledged that there exists a common-law right of access to judicial proceedings and inspection of judicial records, but noted that the right is not absolute, as the public may, in the trial court's discretion, be excluded from such proceedings or records to protect public or private interests. See id. at 638 (citing R.W. v. Hampe, 426 Pa. Super. 305, 310, 626 A.2d 1218, 1220 (1993), Publicker Indus., Inc. v. Cohen, 733 F.2d 1059 (3d Cir. 1984), and Zdrok v. Zdrok, 829 A.2d 697, 700 (Pa. Super. 2003)). Observing that Appellant's present request did not pertain to a trial, but to a proceeding to declare duPont an incapacitated person, the court found Section 5511(a) of the Code relevant in that it allows for more liberal closure of proceedings in such cases. It also found persuasive the trial court's ...

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