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Kanu v. Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 11, 2016

ISATU T. KANU, et al.
v.
TOYOTA MOTOR SALES, USA, INC.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, United States District Judge

         Presently pending and ready for resolution in this product liability action are: (1) a consent motion to seal the motion to approve settlement filed by Plaintiffs Isatu T. Kanu, Isha Kanu, Patrick Kanu, Aminata Kanu, and P.K.[1] (collectively, the "Plaintiffs") (ECF No. 89); and (2) a supplemental motion to approve settlement filed under seal by Defendant Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. ("Defendant") (ECF No. 92). The issues have been briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, both motions will be denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs commenced this action after a defective power window master switch on the driver's door of Plaintiffs' Toyota Corolla allegedly caused a fire. Plaintiffs were injured while exiting the vehicle. The parties entered into settlement discussions and eventually filed a status report with the court indicating that they reached an agreement (the "Settlement Agreement"). (ECF No. 83). According to the status report, "the parties have settled their disputes, and are currently working to finalize the settlement. Among other things, the mediation agreement requires the execution of a mutually agreeable Settlement Agreement, and [c]ourt approval of the resolution as it concerns [Plaintiff P.K.], the minor child of Plaintiff Isatu T. Kanu." (Id.).

         Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint to include claims brought on behalf of Plaintiff P.K., who was not named in the prior pleadings. (ECF No. 85). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiffs moved to seal the parties' forthcoming motion to approve settlement. (ECF No. 86). The court denied the motion, noting:

The motion to approve the [Settlement Agreement], however, has not yet been filed. To the extent that Plaintiffs wish to file a forthcoming motion to approve the [Settlement Agreement] under seal, in whole or in part, Plaintiffs should file a motion to seal that comports with Local Rule 105.11 along with the motion to approve the [Settlement Agreement].

(ECF No. 87, at 2-3). Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed a second motion to seal the forthcoming motion to approve settlement. (ECF No. 89, at 1 ("Plaintiffs intend to file a [c]onsent [m]otion to [a]pprove [s]ettlement. In order to protect the confidential nature of the settlement, and the interests of all parties involved, Plaintiffs move this [c]ourt to enter an order directing that the [m]otion to [a]pprove [s]ettlement be filed under seal.")). At the same time, Plaintiffs filed under seal the parties' confidential Settlement Agreement. (ECF No. 88).[2]The court then advised the parties to "file a motion to approve settlement setting forth the court's authority for doing so as well as the standard to be applied. Furthermore, a full explanation of why the settlement meets the applicable standard must be provided." (ECF No. 90).

         Defendant filed under seal a motion to approve settlement. (ECF No. 92). Plaintiffs responded in opposition, arguing that "the [c]ourt does not have authority to approve [Plaintiff P.K.'s] settlement." (ECF No. 93, at 1). Defendant has not replied, and the time to do so has expired. Instead, Defendant requested a hearing regarding the court's authority to approve the Settlement Agreement as to the minor. (ECF No. 94).

         II. Plaintiffs' Consent Motion to Seal

         A motion to seal must comply with Local Rule 105.11, which provides that:

Any motion seeking the sealing of pleadings, motions, exhibits or other papers to be filed in the Court record shall include (a) proposed reasons supported by specific factual representations to justify the sealing and (b) an explanation why alternatives to sealing would not provide sufficient protections. The Court will not rule upon the motion until at least 14 days after it is entered on the public docket to permit the filing of objections by interested parties. Materials that are the subject of the motion shall remain temporarily sealed pending a ruling by the Court. If the motion is denied, the party making the filing will be given an opportunity to withdraw the materials.

Local Rule 105.11 endeavors to protect the common-law right to inspect and copy judicial records and documents, Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978), while recognizing that competing interests sometimes outweigh the public's right of access. In re Knight Publ'g Co., 743 F.2d 231, 235 (4th Cir. 1984). If the court determines that sealing is appropriate, it must issue an order stating "the reasons (and specific supporting findings) for its decision and the reasons for rejecting alternatives to sealing." Va. Dep't of State Police v. Wash. Post, 386 F.3d 567, 576 (4th Cir. 2004); see In re Knight, 743 F.2d at 235.

         Here, Plaintiffs filed a consent motion to seal the motion to approve settlement. (ECF No. 89). According to Plaintiffs, the parties:

are pursuing the least drastic alternative under the circumstances by requesting that only the [m]otion to [a]pprove [s]ettlement be sealed. The public will have access to all of the information contained in the other documents filed in this case and, therefore, will know that an action was filed, the specific allegations raised in the action, and that the action was ultimately settled. The only ...

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