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In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11

October 3, 2006

IN RE: TERRORIST ATTACKS ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Conway Casey, United States District Judge

This document relates to: ALL ACTIONS

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

The Defendants' Executive Committee ("Defendants' Committee") makes an application for an umbrella protective order covering all materials produced during discovery in the abovecaptioned case. Rule 26(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that upon motion a court may grant a protective order "which justice requires to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense," provided that the party or person requesting the protective order has demonstrated that good cause exists for its issuance. The Plaintiffs' Executive Committee opposes the instant application for a protective order on the grounds that the Defendants' Committee has not adequately demonstrated good cause, particularly in light of the intense public interest surrounding this litigation. Because the Court finds that the Defendants' Committee has demonstrated sufficient good cause to warrant a limited protective order, the Defendants' Committee's application is GRANTED IN PART.

I. MEMORANDUM

"The unique character of the discovery process requires that the trial court have substantial latitude to fashion protective orders." Seattle Times Co. v. Rhinehart, 467 U.S. 20, 36 (1984). But courts also must be mindful that protective orders implicate a litigant's First Amendment right to speak, see id. at 34, as well as the public's common law and "likely constitutional" right of access to the courts, Gambale v. Deutsche Bank AG, 377 F.3d 133, 140 (2d Cir. 2004). Rule 26(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure accommodates these important rights by requiring the party or person seeking a protective order to demonstrate good cause for its issuance. See Seattle Times, 467 U.S. at 37; In re "Agent Orange" Prod. Liab. Litig. ("In re Agent Orange"), 821 F.2d 139, 145 (2d Cir. 1987) ("[T]he party seeking a protective order has the burden of showing that good cause exists for issuance of that order . . . [and] if good cause is not shown, the discovery materials in question should . . . be open to the public for inspection.").

The specificity required in a showing of good cause varies with the scope and complexity of a case. Ordinarily, good cause exists "when a party shows that disclosure will result in a clearly defined, specific and serious injury." Shingara v. Skiles, 420 F.3d 301, 306 (3d Cir. 2005); see also Havens v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., No. 94 Civ. 1402 (CSH), 1995 WL 234710, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. April 20, 1995) ("[D]efendant fails to specify the nature or extent of injury [that] it contemplates release of the sealed documents would bring about, and accordingly fails to establish good cause."). But see Topo v. Dhir, 210 F.R.D. 76, 77-78 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (holding that while the "specificity requirement" of the good cause standard applies to companies, it does not apply to private individuals). In cases of unusual scope and complexity, however, broad protection during the pretrial stages of litigation may be warranted without a highly particularized finding of good cause. See In re Agent Orange, 821 F.2d at 148. Instead, a court may impose an initial protective order based upon a general showing of good cause, and may modify that order at a later time if more specific grounds for its continuance remain indiscernible. Id. (explaining that although the district court made no finding of good cause, the court "properly entered the [protective] orders initially as temporary measures, and properly lifted them thereafter").

In addition, the public's right of access to discovery materials depends on the type of materials and the stage of the litigation. A court considering whether to issue a protective order must consider the public interests at stake. Shingara, 420 F.3d at 308; Citizens First Nat'l Bank of Princeton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 178 F.3d 943, 945 (7th Cir. 1999) (Posner, J.) (noting that "[t]he judge is the primary representative of the public interest in the judicial process"). But, as the Second Circuit indicated in United States v. Amodeo, 71 F.3d 1044, 1050 (2d Cir. 1995), public interest in particular litigation does not generate a public right of access to all discovery materials. Indeed, no public right of access exists with respect to materials produced during the initial stages of discovery. Id. The Second Circuit in Amodeo explained that while a presumption of public access exists as to documents filed with the court, "[d]ocuments that play no role in the performance of Article III functions, such as those passed between the parties in discovery, lie entirely beyond the presumption's reach and stand on a different footing than a motion filed by a party seeking action by the court, or, indeed, than any other document which is presented to the court to invoke its powers or affect its decisions." Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alteration omitted).

Thus, the public's right of access to discovery material only encompasses access to "judicial documents," that is, such "items filed with the court that are relevant to the performance of the judicial function and useful in the judicial process." SEC v. TheStreet.com, 273 F.3d 222, 231 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting United States v. Amodeo, 44 F.3d 141, 145 (2d Cir. 1995) (alterations omitted)). This "presumptive right to public observation is at its apogee when asserted with respect to documents relating to matters that directly affect an adjudication. Such documents include those relating to the decision of a motion for summary judgment . . . ." Gambale, 377 F.3d at 140 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Accordingly, a party seeking a protective order sealing trial, other court hearings, or motions and accompanying exhibits filed with the court must satisfy a more demanding standard of good cause. See id. (noting that "documents used by parties moving for, or opposing, summary judgment should not remain under seal absent the most compelling reasons"); Byrnes v. Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, No. 98 Civ. 8520 (BSJ), 2000 WL 60221, *1 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 25, 2000).

In a two-page letter to the Court, dated May 4, 2006, the Defendants' Committee requests that all discovery in this multi-district litigation be subject to a protective order. The Committee has made this request on behalf of numerous defendants, including sovereign states, government institutions, public figures, private individuals, companies, charitable organizations, and others. The Defendants' Committee's application includes, inter alia, a request for provisions limiting the parties' use of all disclosure or discovery material to purposes associated with this litigation. It also requests provisions affording additional protections to specifically designated confidential materials. Among the latter provisions, the Defendants' Committee requests that the protective order require the parties to file under seal any confidential material submitted to the Court.

The Committee argues that good cause exists for an umbrella protective order because discovery will encompass "an enormous number of documents," and "[a] substantial portion of those documents may contain sensitive or confidential information, such as details about defendants' finances, the public disclosure of which would intrude on defendants' privacy." (Defs.'s May 4, 2006 Letter.) The Defendants' Committee also argues that imposing a protective order will prevent further prejudice to the defendants. It contends "that plaintiffs have already demonstrated their desire to try their case in the press," and therefore, that disclosure of any discovery materials "would irreparably tarnish defendants' reputations" and "would prejudice defendants' ability to defend themselves at trial." (Id.)

Under normal circumstances, such broad assertions of good cause would be too generalized to support imposition of a protective order. See Shingara, 420 F.3d at 306; Havens, 1995 WL 234710, at *11. But the present circumstances are far from normal. Indeed, this multi-district litigation amounts to one of the largest private lawsuits in United States history. Defendant-by-defendant good cause determinations for individual protective orders at this juncture in this case, much less document-by-document confidentiality determinations where no protective order has issued, would impose an enormous burden upon the Court and severely hinder its progress toward resolution of pretrial matters. For this reason, the Court finds that the unusual scope and complexity of the instant litigation warrants broad protection during the pretrial stages of litigation based upon only a general finding of good cause. See In re Agent Orange, 821 F.2d at 148.

Furthermore, the Court finds that the Defendants' Committee's general assertions of good cause based upon privacy and prejudice concerns are sufficient to warrant imposition of a limited protective order in this case. Most, if not all, of the numerous defendants to these consolidated actions are accused of either committing the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 or providing material support to those who did. Many of these same defendants will be asked to turn over a vast array of private and confidential information during discovery, much of which will have little or no bearing on the resolution of these actions but will be subject to widespread public scrutiny with prejudicial effects in the absence of a protective order. See Seattle Times, 467 U.S. at 34-35 (noting that "[i]t is clear from experience that pretrial discovery by depositions and interrogatories has a significant potential for abuse," and that such abuse "may seriously implicate privacy interests of litigants and third parties"). In light of these circumstances, the Defendants' Committee has shown sufficient good cause for a protective order covering the initial stages of discovery.

Such a showing is not sufficient, however, to warrant a protective order covering all "judicial documents," particularly those submitted to the Court in connection with trial, other hearings, and motions. The public's right of access to the court and judicial process is at its "apogee" with respect to such documents, Gambale, 377 F.3d at 140, and a protective order sealing them requires a more specific, clearly defined demonstration of good cause than that which the Defendant's Committee presented here, see Byrnes, 2000 WL 60221, at *1. Thus, although the Court will permit the parties to designate particular discovery material as confidential and subject to heightened protections, the Court will not permit such materials to be filed under seal pursuant to the Defendant's Committee's current application.

II. ORDER

A. PURPOSES AND LIMITATIONS

Disclosure and discovery activity in the actions that make up this Multi-District Litigation (the "MDL") are likely to involve production of confidential, proprietary, or private information for which special protection from public disclosure and from use for any purpose other than prosecuting this litigation will be warranted. Accordingly, the Court hereby adopts the following Protective Order ("Order").

B. DEFINITIONS

1. "Party" shall mean any party to this MDL, including all of its officers, directors, employees, consultants, retained experts, and outside counsel (and their support staff).

2. "Disclosure or Discovery Material" shall include, but not be limited to, all items or information, regardless of the medium or manner generated, stored, or maintained (including, among other things, testimony, transcripts or tangible things), that are produced or generated in disclosures or responses to discovery in this MDL.

3. "Producing Party" shall mean a Party or non-party that produces Disclosure or Discovery Material in this MDL.

4. "Receiving Party" shall refer to a Party that receives Disclosure or Discovery Material from a Producing Party.

5. "Designating Party" shall mean a Party or non-party that designates Disclosure or Discovery Material as Confidential pursuant to paragraph F.3. of this Order.

6. "Confidential Information or Material" or "Protected Material" shall mean all Disclosure or Discovery Material, or portions thereof, as well as any copies, summaries or abstracts thereof, which have been designated by the Designating ...


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