December 16, 2017

Private Information in Public Court Filings

Court proceedings are supposed to be public. When they are public and easily accessible, citizens know the law and the courts are kept accountable. These are the principles that underpin RECAP, our project to help liberate federal court records from behind a pay-wall.

However, appropriate restrictions on public disclosure are equally critical to democracy-enhancing information management by the judiciary. Without protections on personal data, trade secrets, the addresses of cooperating witnesses, or other harmful information the courts would become a frightening place for many citizens in need of justice. Peter Winn has described this challenge in detail.

Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, it is important to restrict some legal information in order to set the rest free. That is why our courts have a strong legacy of sealing cases when, on balance, their disclosure would do more harm to justice than good. When the risks don’t require the entire case to be sealed, portions of documents can be redacted. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2 and Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 9037 define these instances.

But what happens when mistakes are made or negligence occurs? This has been a largely unexplored area to date. In a 2005 bankruptcy case in the US District of South Carolina, Green Tree Servicing included the debtors’ social security numbers in a public filing. The document was made available via the courts’ electronic public access system (PACER) for viewing by anyone who was willing to pay the fee. The debtors filed suit in 2008 against Green Tree for disclosing their personal information counter to the rules I mentioned above, as well as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, and other provisions. This was to be an interesting case, but (unfortunately for scholars and perhaps fortunately for the parties) they settled.

However, this was not the end of Green Tree’s entanglement with these provisions. In 2009 they were servicing another pair of debtors, and they likewise included their social security numbers in the filing. The debtors filed suit against Green Tree under similar reasoning. This time, the parties didn’t settle. In its opinion, the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana dismissed all claims that were based on a private right of action against Green Tree, but left open the possibility that a contempt of court claim could prevail:

The Debtors have pled sufficient facts to state a claim for contempt under §105 for Greentree’s failure to comply with Rule 9037. The act of limiting access to [the document containing SSNs] may be a sufficient remedy under Rule 9037, and a finding of contempt would require that Greentree was aware of its violation of Rule 9037. […] Greentree has “inadvertently” failed to redact social security numbers on proofs of claim forms in at least one other case in which the debtors alleged a claim for contempt. See, In re Petty, No. 08-34375 HCD (Bankr. N. D. Ind. September 21, 2009). Whether the failure to redact here was coincidence or something else is not for the court to decide at this juncture. Nonetheless, the Debtors have pled sufficient facts to establish their claim for contempt under §105(a) due to Greentree’s failure to comply with Rule 9037 and thus, that count survives Greentree’s motion to dismiss and will proceed to trial. All other counts shall be dismissed.

The outcome appears to hinge largely on the “willfulness” of Green Tree. Given the 2005 South Carolina case, it seems evident that Green Tree should have been quite aware of the federal rules of procedure regarding redaction. It will interesting to see how the case turns out.

In the context of these recent cases, the 4th Circuit issued a decision yesterday on a related matter. In Ostergren v. Cuccinelli, the court ruled that a third-party who downloaded public records (“land records”) from government-provided web sites would not be liable for damages when republishing those records online — even if that third-party knew that the records contained private information such as social security numbers.

The facts of the case are quite interesting. Betty Ostergren, a pro-privacy advocate, had for many years tried to get the State of Virginia to implement and then to improve its automatic redaction technology for these records. Virginia was making some effort to do so, but evidently the various counties were not working as fast as she would like, leaving many documents unredacted. Indeed, the original legislation setting the redaction system into motion would have required the task to have been completed by July 1, 2010, but it didn’t go into effect because the General Assembly failed to appropriate the necessary funds. Ostergren decided that the only way to motivate the necessary attentiveness was to begin publishing land records with unredacted SSNs on her own web site. For maximum effect, she chose land records from known public officials.

Virginia enacted a statute designed to stop this type of behavior, and Virginia filed suit under that statute. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed an amicus brief in support of Ostergren. The 4th Circuit delivered a double-whammy to Virginia: not only did it uphold the district court’s ruling that Ostergren’s site warranted First Amendment protection, it ruled that the protection should extend even further than the district court had ruled. This interpretation was made even easier for the court given the fact that she was posting the materials for the explicit purpose of drawing attention to the problem — it was disclosure, critique, and commentary via simple transparency. As the court noted:

Under Cox Broadcasting and its progeny, the First Amendment does not allow Virginia to punish Ostergren for posting its land records online without redacting SSNs when numerous clerks are doing precisely that.19

19 For the same reason, Virginia could not punish Ostergren for publishing a SSN-containing land record that had accidentally been overlooked during its imperfect redaction process—having a one to five percent error rate—unless Virginia had first corrected that error. Even then, we leave open whether under such circumstances the Due Process Clause would not preclude Virginia from enforcing section 59.1-443.2 without first giving Ostergren adequate notice that the error had been corrected.

Thus, we have an intriguing reversal of the principle I set out above (that it is important to restrict some legal information in order to set the rest free). In this case, it was important to (hopefully temporarily) make more visible the very type of information that ultimately needed to be restricted.