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No Sealing of Case Based on “Defendant[‘s] … Damaging Assertions Against Plaintiffs”

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From Friday’s decision by Justice Arlene P. Bluth (N.Y. trial ct.) in Choi v. Solomon:

Plaintiff Choi claims that she and defendant lived together, in a platonic relationship, from about October 2010 through October 2019. She claims that defendant lived in their shared apartment, which was always under her name. Choi characterizes defendant as a parasite who was unemployed for much of the time they lived together and Choi ended up paying for the apartment as well as defendant’s lavish personal expenses. [More factual details available in the order.-EV] …

Plaintiffs [Choi and a friend with whom she is hoping to conceive a child] bring ten causes of action against defendant for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract [a settlement agreement they had entered to resolve their differences -EV], breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment, defamation, permanent injunction, ejectment, attorneys’ fees and indemnification.

In this motion, plaintiffs move to seal the record in this case. They claim that defendant has shown he will make numerous and damaging assertions against plaintiffs that will harm their reputations and will have a harmful effect on the child that plaintiffs hope to conceive. Plaintiffs complain that defendant spoke to a newspaper after this case was filed and accuse defendant of “using this Court as a means of delivering revenge.”

Defendant, appearing self-represented, asserts that he did not seek out newspaper coverage and merely responded to an email from a reporter. He also argues that plaintiffs brought a case publicly and now want to seal only because it appears that they no longer like news coverage about it.

In reply, plaintiffs ask the Court to seal the case so that they could be protected from untrue and harmful statements alleged by defendant….

“Under New York law, there is a broad presumption that the public is entitled to access to judicial proceedings and court records. This State has long recognized that civil actions and proceedings should be open to the public in order to ensure that they are conducted efficiently, honestly, and fairly.” “Confidentiality is clearly the exception, not the rule and the party seeking to seal court records has the burden to demonstrate compelling circumstances to justify restricting public access.” …

[T]he Court recognizes that the allegations contained in the pleadings filed by both sides contain salacious assertions. But the fact is that plaintiffs decided to bring this case in court and the doors of this court are open for public view. Plaintiff Choi and defendant apparently entered into a contractual agreement that was supposed to wind down their relationship (both financially and socially). If plaintiffs were so concerned about publicity or public scrutiny, then that agreement … could have contained a private dispute resolution mechanism such as an arbitration or mediation.

Instead, plaintiffs brought the instant case and filed a complaint that was available to the public for over a month before they made the instant motion. Moreover, that complaint contains numerous insults directed at defendant; plaintiffs call defendant “a ne-er-do-well,” a “user,” “a master manipulator,” and “paranoid.” If plaintiffs want to hurl mud, they might get dirty.

While there may be instances in which sealing a docket might be appropriate, this case does not present such a circumstance. Plaintiffs decided to file a publicly available case and then ask the Court to protect them because defendant might say horrible things about them throughout the course of this litigation.

But plaintiffs’ entire case rests on the notion that defendant has made many hurtful and inflammatory statements over the years. In fact, the complaint suggests that defendant’s incendiary statements and actions destroyed the parties’ relationships. Unfortunately, sometimes relationships deteriorate and there are hard feelings, which can lead to inexcusable statements. But harsh words are not a basis to seal a case, especially where it appears that both sides have no qualms about tearing each other down.

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Eugene Volokh

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