New Guidance On Motions To Seal Documents In Hawai`i Federal Court

Lawyers who routinely file ex parte motions to seal sensitive or confidential documents or information (referred to in this article as “confidential information”) in the District of Hawai`i federal courts should pay attention to developments in Center for Auto Safety v. Chrysler Group. In this class action alleging that a car manufacturer concealed a dangerous safety defect, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned the district court’s order sealing court records on a preliminary injunction motion. The ruling adds a new layer to the different standards used by federal courts in deciding ex parte motions to seal.

In the past, Hawai`i federal judges have decided such motions based on whether the confidential information is to be used in support of a non-dispositive versus dispositive motion (such as a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment). In Center for Auto Safety, the Ninth Circuit focuses instead on whether the confidential information is “more than tangentially related to the merits of a case” to determine the applicable sealing standard, blurring the lines of the existing dispositive/non-dispositive dichotomy. Under this ruling, motions that were historically sealed for “good cause” because they were non-dispositive (e.g., discovery motions) could now warrant the “compelling reasons” standard.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling is stayed pending Chrysler’s petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. Because attention to the applicable standards and case law can avoid potentially embarrassing bounced motions and time-consuming re-dos on motions to seal, Center for Auto Safety v. Chrysler Group bears close watching.