As you may be aware, most court documents are actually available to the public for viewing. Under the first amendment, most court proceedings are public matters, and case files are public record.
The idea that anyone can look up your name and see the full details of a legal dispute you are or were involved in is disconcerting to most Americans. Understanding why court documents are public record, why so many people are concerned about privacy, and how you can get your court documents sealed can help you understand the US judicial system more thoroughly and navigate your case with confidence.
Why Are Court Documents Publicly Available?
Frequently, legal cases involve sensitive information that can be embarrassing or deeply personal for all parties involved. Understandably, the thought that a stranger could access this information is frustrating to many people.
Court records are public information—at least hypothetically—to help citizens hold the government and other organizations accountable for their actions.
Many court proceedings involve government bodies or large organizations such as corporations. Making sure court documents are public record can help the public understand exactly why the government is legislating in a particular manner, or how effectively courts are holding large corporations responsible for their actions.
Making court documents public record can also help citizens keep courts accountable and try to ensure courts are corruption-free. If a court is obviously engaging in unscrupulous behavior, public records can be an effective way to expose that behavior and hold those responsible accountable.
However, the public availability of court records is also cause for concern for many individuals, particularly those concerned with privacy.
Privacy Concerns with Publicly Available Court Records
Although many court records are technically public record, court records can also be filed under seal and made private information if the correct actions are taken.
For example, divorce court cases are usually public information. However, if both parties in a divorce request that the court seal the case file, and the court judged that both parties have a valid reason for doing so (more on that later), the case file may be sealed.
Courts tend to be relatively understanding when parties in a legal dispute ask the court to seal files—and many privacy advocates argue that the way courts handle cases favors corporations, not citizens.
For example, in Perez v Lantern Light LLP, a member of President Obama's Department of Labor (DOL) alleged that DirecTV failed to pay overtime wages to workers who were employees of a subcontractor; furthermore, the DOL alleged that the employees should actually be qualified as joint employees and the whole subcontractor agreement was a scam. The court ruled in the DOL's favor and forced DirecTV to pay the workers overtime.
However, the subcontractor agreement examined during the case was sealed by a court at the behest of DirectTV. Were it not for the involvement of a public-interest group in the case that successfully challenged the sealing of the contract, the case may never have progressed.
Since unsealing private court documents can be a long and expensive process, many privacy advocates worry that the current way court record privacy laws are set up benefits corporations more than the people. Privacy advocates argue that corporations may be able to leverage their resources to seal court documents more easily than citizens, which runs counter to the reason court documents are public record in the first place.
Opening Pandora's Box: the Internet and Public Court Documents
Even more so than how laws governing public court documents may benefit corporations, privacy advocates have one major concern: how the internet impacts public records.
Pre-internet, court documents were only available as written public records. If you wanted to see a case file, you had to go down to the courthouse where it was located and actually read the physical copy or work with a court clerk to obtain a copy.
Now, you can simply use state databases to search for court documents and read them online as a PDF. For many privacy advocates, the ability to access court documents online is sobering for a few reasons:
- They may contain personally identifying information. Technically, information such as Social Security numbers (SSNs) and bank account numbers are supposed to be omitted from, or censored in, court documents. However, mistakes can be made when filing court documents, resulting in this data becoming available to the public. If an individual can obtain a Social Security number or bank account information from a poorly filed court document, they can use that information to engage in identity theft.
- The identities of vulnerable parties may be available. Family law cases often contain allegations against both parties, whether or not they're true. They may also contain information about the involved parties, including information that can be used to identify the participants. Individuals can use the information in court documents to identify participants and slander them or use that information in a damaging way.
- They may contain embarrassing or private information. For example, in court proceedings concerning alleged workplace harassment, there are often allegations concerning a party's sexual habits or lifestyle. Understandably, most people aren't thrilled at the idea that information could be acquired via the internet and used against them.
- Corporations may use them to their advantage. In Utah, a court found that a dating service was crawling divorce case files to find newly single individuals they could then target for advertising. The ability of corporations to use data from court documents to target individuals for advertising is a significant concern for many privacy advocates.
At this point, you're probably wondering, "alright, well, how can I get my court documents sealed?" Here's what you need to know.
Not All Court Documents Need to be Sealed
Some court documents are private information by default. Cases the public cannot view include:
- Alcohol and drug commitment records
- Mental illness commitment records
- Confidential name changes
- Paternity cases
- Juvenile non-offender records
- Any records sealed by a judge's order
How to Seal Court Documents
However, most family law cases are still public record. For example, divorce cases often contain profoundly personal information both parties would prefer to keep private, yet divorce case files are publicly available.
To make a publicly available record such as a divorce case file private, parties involved in the case must ask a judge to seal a document. It’s important to note that Nevada Revised Statute 125.110 allows courts to seal files for divorce in Nevada.
Reasons for individuals to ask a judge to seal a divorce document include:
- They want to protect individual information, such as the name of any children involved in the case.
- Domestic violence plays a role in the case, and the survivor doesn't want the abuse to be a matter of public record.
- Both parties want to be sure that sensitive, personally identifying information such as SSNs and bank account numbers are kept private.
- The case divulges proprietary business information the business owner or employee wants to be sealed.
- False allegations contained in the divorce could be used against one or both parties to damage their reputation.
Under these circumstances, parties involved in a divorce can ask a judge to seal the case file. If the judge decides that the harm the parties would incur from making the file public record outweighs the need of the public to access the documents, they'll seal the case file.
It's important to note that the request must be narrowly tailored. If the parties ask the judge to seal off more information than is appropriate considering the case, the judge will probably refuse the request to seal the documents.
Divorce is already an emotional and stressful situation and knowing that your privacy is protected can help reduce some of your worries and concerns. We encourage our clients to take advantage of this process.
To receive legal assistance from an experienced attorney from Law Practice, Ltd. in a consultation, contact us online or give us a call at (702) 899-2875