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Dobson v. Milton Hershey School And School Trust

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 22, 2019

ADAM DOBSON, Plaintiff,
v.
THE MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL AND SCHOOL TRUST, et al., Defendants.

          Jones Judge

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction

         This case is one of several cases filed against the Milton Hershey School (“MHS”) that alleges a policy of expulsion of students due to mental health issues. The plaintiff, Adam Dobson, a former MHS student, filed this lawsuit in 2016 and alleged that he was expelled from MHS after he was hospitalized twice for mental health issues. It is alleged that MHS has an informal “two-hospitalization” policy, whereby the school expels students who are hospitalized more than once in outside facilities for mental health issues.

         While the parties continue to litigate the merits of the plaintiff's claims, we are now called upon to resolve a collateral dispute-a motion to intervene filed by The Philadelphia Inquirer, PBC (“The Inquirer”). The Inquirer seeks to intervene for the limited purpose of unsealing a number of documents in this case that have been filed under seal pursuant to protective orders entered by this court. The Inquirer argues that the public has a right of access to these documents, given the allegations against MHS. For their part, the defendants assert that these documents are discovery materials and should remain sealed, as there is good cause for the protection of these documents.

         After consideration, while we concede that there is a strong public interest in this case, we also agree that there is good cause for the continued protection of these documents. In particular, we note that the records at issue in this case related to a discovery dispute, specifically the alleged inappropriate disclosure of discovery material. These discovery documents enjoy greater protection from public disclosure and are only tangentially related to the merits issues in this litigation, which are questions of broader public interest. Moreover, since the underlying issue that was addressed by the court involved alleged inappropriate disclosure of discovery material, public disclosure of this information would defeat the significant interests served by the sealing order, since it would arguably highlight and place a lantern upon questions of improper disclosure of discovery information, a matter which the court has correctly concluded was best addressed discretely with the parties. Accordingly, we will grant The Inquirer's motion to intervene but deny The Inquirer's request to unseal these particular documents.

         II. Discussion

         A. The Inquirer Will Be Permitted to Intervene for the Limited Purpose of Challenging the Sealed Records.

         The Inquirer has moved to intervene in this case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 24 for the limited purpose of unsealing certain records which it claims the public is entitled to, given the allegations against MHS in this case. On this score, it is well-settled that under Rule 24,

“On timely motion, the court may permit anyone to intervene who: ... has a claim or defense that shares with the main action a common question of law or fact....” Fed.R.Civ.P. 24(b)(1) (emphasis added). Rule 24(b) further provides that, when a court exercises its discretion, “the court must consider whether the intervention will unduly delay or prejudice the adjudication of the original parties' rights.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 24(b)(3). In exercising its discretion, the court should consider various factors, including whether the proposed intervenors will add anything to the litigation and whether the proposed intervenors' interests are already adequately represented in the litigation. Hoots, 672 F.2d at 1136.

Benjamin v. Dep't of Pub. Welfare of Cmwlth., 267 F.R.D. 456, 464-65 (M.D. Pa. 2010), aff'd sub nom. Benjamin v. Dep't of Pub. Welfare of Pa., 432 Fed.Appx. 94 (3d Cir. 2011).

         As the text of Rule 24(b) implies, decisions regarding requests for permissive intervention rest in the sound discretion of the court and will not be disturbed absent an abuse of that discretion. Hoots v. Com. of Pa., 672 F.2d 1133, 1135 (3d Cir. 1982). By its terms Rule 24(b) provides that: “On timely motion, the court may permit anyone to intervene who: ... has a claim or defense that shares with the main action a common question of law or fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 24(b)(1)(B). Thus, Rule 24(b), “lists three requirements for permissive intervention: (1) ‘timely application'; (2) ‘a question of law or fact in common' between the ‘applicant's claim or defense and the main action'; (3) a determination that the intervention will not ‘unduly delay or prejudice the adjudication of the rights of the original parties.' ” United States v. Columbia Pictures Indus., Inc., 88 F.R.D. 186, 189 (S.D.N.Y. 1980). Moreover, it is well-settled that a third party may be permitted to intervene for the limited purpose of unsealing records or challenging an existing protective order. See United States v. Wecht, 484 F.3d 194, 199 n.4 (3d Cir. 2007); Leucadia, Inc. v. Applied Extrusion Technologies, Inc., 998 F.2d 157, 167 (3d Cir. 1993); Republic of Philippines v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 949 F.2d 653, 657 (3d Cir. 1991); Littlejohn v. Bic Corp., 851 F.2d 673, 677-78 (3d Cir. 1988).

         Here, the defendants challenge The Inquirer's motion to intervene, arguing that it is not timely filed. They contend that The Inquirer has been following this case since its inception, and that it knew of the sealing of these records since at least 2017 but did not move to intervene until June 2019. However, the Third Circuit has held that “[t]he mere passage of time . . . does not render an application untimely.” Mountain Top Condominium Ass'n v. Dave Stabbert Master Builder, Inc., 72 F.3d 361, 369 (3d Cir. 1995) (citations omitted). Rather, a court must look at the totality of the circumstances, considering “(1) the stage of the proceeding; (2) the prejudice that delay may cause the parties; and (3) the reason for the delay.” Id. (citing In re Fine Paper Antitrust Litigation, 695 F.2d 494, 500 (3d Cir. 1982)).

         In this regard, the defendants do not argue that there will be any excessive delay if The Inquirer is permitted to intervene. Indeed, whether these records remain sealed is a collateral matter that should not result in any delay in the litigation of the underlying merits of this case.[2] Rather, the defendants contend that they will be prejudiced if the records The Inquirer seeks to have unsealed are in fact unsealed, given the content of those records. However, this argument is more appropriately tailored to the question of whether the records should be unsealed, and whether information should be redacted from specific documents. Thus contention, therefore, does not directly speak to the question of whether The Inquirer may intervene to challenge the sealing of these records. Accordingly, when we consider the totality of the circumstances, we find that there would be no undue delay as a result of permitting The Inquirer to intervene. We also find that the Inquirer's motion to intervene is not so delinquent that it should be denied out of hand. Finally, while we recognize Milton Hershey's potential concern regarding prejudice that may result from specific disclosures, we believe that this concern can and should be addressed through an individualized assessment of specific documents, rather than through the wholesale denial of this motion to intervene. Accordingly, the motion to intervene will be granted.

         B. The Documents Requested By The Inquirer Should Remain Sealed.

         While we will grant The Inquirer's motion to intervene, we conclude on the unique facts of this case that these particular records should remain sealed. As we have explained, The Inquirer seeks to have multiple docket entries in this case unsealed and argues that the public has a right to access these documents, particularly given the nature of the allegations against the defendants. On the other hand, the defendants contend that these documents, which contain confidential discovery materials, were sealed pursuant to protective orders entered by this court and should remain sealed, as there is good cause for the continued protection of these documents. Specifically, the defendants argue that these documents were sealed in response to the alleged improper leaking of discovery materials to media outlets, as well as extrajudicial statements allegedly made by the plaintiff's former counsel to the media.

         After consideration, we agree with the defendants that the district court correctly concluded that there was good cause for the continued protection of these documents. Accordingly, we will ...


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