It is clear by now that the federal courts in Tennessee are not a safe place for most sensitive business information. Legitimate trade secrets are safe. Well-established privileges (e.g., attorney-client privilege) still apply. And the courts still respect statutory requirements to protect things like personal health information. But unless your sensitive business information is a matter of national security, a recent series of Sixth Circuit opinions means you cannot expect to get or keep a broad seal covering documents in the courts’ records. Now that Tennessee’s federal courts cannot keep your secrets, how do you get them back?
Redact and Replace
The core principle of Shane Group is that the public generally is entitled to see whatever the courts rely on in deciding the merits of the cases before them. So if your secrets are irrelevant to the merits of the case—e.g., names of customers or suppliers unrelated to litigation with a third party—consider redacting the irrelevant secrets and filing a substitute document with the court.
This gets more complicated (and expensive) when relevant and irrelevant information are intertwined in a document or a document would require extensive line-by-line redactions. When redactions are not cost effective, consider substituting a stipulation to the relevant facts.
Redact and Justify
The courts are serious about maintaining themselves as open institutions, and the extra procedural requirements of the Shane Group cases make it much easier for a court to just deny a motion to seal. But if your secrets are necessary for deciding the merits of your case and they satisfy the substantive standards of Shane Group, the extra procedural steps are demanding but clear.
Narrowly redact the protected information, and make a chart as you go documenting, line-by-line, the reason for the redaction backed up by legal citation. If you make it easy for the court to follow what you redacted and easy to adopt your explanations in its order, you stand a much better chance of keeping the original document under seal.
Work With (or Around) Opposing Counsel
Each of these approaches is more difficult when your secrets are in the other party’s filings. If both parties have secrets in the record, consider collaborating on an agreed order dealing with both parties’ sensitive information in a Shane Group-compliant way. If opposing counsel sees Shane Group as an opportunity to gain leverage, consider whether your current protective order gives you the right to claw back or redact documents already produced in discovery.
Keep Your Head Down, But Not In the Sand
While you are preparing Shane Group-compliant replacements or justifications, try not to draw the court’s attention to the sealed documents. This means avoiding new motions to seal documents that might trigger a general “show cause” order.
Do not, however, simply hope that no one will notice. The Sixth Circuit has vacated seals on its own motion, and district courts in Tennessee are following the Sixth Circuit’s lead by proactively addressing old seals. If your secrets are under seal in an active case in Tennessee’s federal courts, you should expect to encounter Shane Group sooner or later. Be prepared.