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United States v. Erie County

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

August 18, 2014

ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK, Defendant-Appellee,

Argued June 18, 2014

The United States brought an action against Erie County, alleging that two of the County's correctional facilities violated the federal constitutional rights of their inmates. The action was settled. Pursuant to the stipulated order of dismissal, the parties agreed that compliance consultants were to prepare reports measuring the County's progress in improving conditions in the correctional facilities. The reports were to be filed with the district court, which retained jurisdiction over the matter. The district court (Skretny, C.J.) allowed those reports to be filed under seal, and the New York Civil Liberties Union (" NYCLU" ) sought to intervene in order to have the reports unsealed. The district court allowed NYCLU to intervene, but denied its motion to unseal the reports. We reverse this denial, and hold that the First Amendment requires public access to the reports.

ERIN ASLAN (Mark L. Gross, on the brief), for Jocelyn Samuels, Acting Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., for Plaintiff-Appellee.

MICHELLE M. PARKER, for Michael A. Siragusa, Erie County Attorney, Buffalo, N.Y., for Defendant-Appellee.

ALEXIS KARTERTON (Arthur Eisenberg, Jordan Wells, Christopher Dunn, on the brief), New York Civil Liberties Union, New York, N.Y., for Intervenor-Appellant.

Before: CALABRESI, PARKER, and LYNCH, Circuit Judges.


Page 236

CALABRESI, Circuit Judge

This case is about public access to judicial documents.[1] The documents in this case are compliance reports, filed with the district court pursuant to a settlement agreement between the United States and Erie County. The reports measure Erie County's progress in improving the conditions of its prisons, which the United States alleged violated the Fourteenth and Eighth Amendments of the Constitution in the suit that led to the settlement agreement. If the reports show that Erie County is failing to fulfill the conditions outlined in the settlement's stipulated order of dismissal, the United States is empowered to bring an enforcement proceeding, and the district court can provide " any relief permitted by law or equity." Joint App'x at 219.

Today, we hold that the public's fundamental right of access to judicial documents, guaranteed by the First Amendment, was wrongly denied when the compliance reports in this case were sealed. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's decision, and order that the judicial documents be unsealed.


Following a two-year investigation into the conditions of confinement at two Erie County correctional facilities, the United States brought an action in the Western District of New York against Erie County and several of its officials.[2] The action, filed in September of 2009, alleged that the conditions at the Erie County facilities violated the federal constitutional rights of the inmates housed there by failing (a) to protect them from harm, (b) to provide adequate mental health care or medical care, and (c) to engage in adequate suicide prevention.

Page 237

In June of 2010, the District Court approved a partial settlement between the parties, which would resolve only the claims relating to suicide prevention. Pursuant to this agreement, the parties appointed a compliance officer, who would file with the Court reports measuring the extent to which Erie County was taking steps to prevent suicides.

The United States' other claims against Erie County remained. When Erie County moved to dismiss these claims, the District Court denied the motion but ordered the United States to file an amended complaint. The United States did so, alleging Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations for, inter alia, medical indifference, substandard mental health and medical care, and environmental health and safety failings.

In August of 2011, the United States and Erie County proposed a settlement agreement to resolve these remaining claims. Under the agreement, the claims against the individual defendant-officials were dismissed, and while Erie County did not admit wrongdoing, it did agree to implement practices and procedures to remediate what the United States had contended were unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

To ensure that the terms of the order were fulfilled, the settlement provided for the appointment of two compliance consultants. One would monitor mental health issues, and the other would oversee medical issues.[3] Every six months, the compliance consultants were to produce written reports--which are the focus of this litigation--outlining Erie County's progress, or lack thereof, in remedying the issues that led to the suit and settlement. The reports were first to be given to the parties, who could provide comment, and were then to be filed with the District Court. The compliance consultants would report to the Court whether Erie County was in substantial compliance, partial compliance, or non-compliance with the settlement agreement.

In an order entered later that August, the District Court agreed that the parties' proposed stipulated settlement order satisfied the requirements for prospective relief under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A), inasmuch as it was narrowly drawn and employed the least intrusive means to correct the alleged violations of the federal rights at issue. The Court therefore approved the stipulated order dismissing the government's suit, but it also retained jurisdiction over the matter until the terms of the settlement were fulfilled.

Importantly, the settlement agreement allows either party to move to reopen the case at any time " should issues requiring [the] Court's intervention arise." Under such circumstances, the compliance reports would form the record for any appropriate enforcement action before the District Court. Should, for example, Erie County fail to abide by the settlement, the agreement provides that the Court is fully empowered to order " any relief permitted by law or equity." Significantly, the agreement does not purport to preclude the District Court from providing such relief sua sponte if, on the basis of the reports, it finds non-compliance.

After the first compliance report was produced, Erie County moved that the order be filed under seal. The United States did not ...

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