Clawing Back Secrets after Shane GroupIt 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.

Sixth Circuit Clarifies Where to Appeal in a Transferred CaseLast month, the Sixth Circuit subtly deepened a circuit split over a significant question of appellate jurisdiction within the federal courts: When a lawsuit begins in one U.S. district court but is transferred to a second district court within another federal circuit before reaching a final judgment, which court of appeals has jurisdiction to review the first district court’s interlocutory decisions?

In Kalama v. Matson Navigation Co., Inc., a panel of the Sixth Circuit answered: Appellate jurisdiction exists in the court of appeals encompassing the transferee district court, where the case reaches a final judgment.  The Kalama appeal arose out of convoluted multidistrict litigation.  The plaintiffs initially brought the underlying lawsuit in the Northern District of Ohio.  The action was eventually transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which dismissed some, but not all, defendants from the lawsuit.  The Eastern District of Pennsylvania then re-transferred the case back to the Northern District of Ohio.  The case reached a final judgment when the Northern District of Ohio dismissed the remaining defendants.  Several plaintiffs then appealed only the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s dismissal to the Sixth Circuit, which encompasses Ohio, but not Pennsylvania.

The Kalama appeal put the Sixth Circuit in the strange position of reviewing an order that arose in a district court outside of its territorial jurisdiction.  Such a situation arises infrequently for good reason.  Federal courts may only exercise jurisdiction to the extent authorized by Congress.  One such jurisdictional authorization, codified at 28 U.S.C. § 1294, provides that “appeals from reviewable decisions of the district . . . courts shall be taken . . . to the court of appeals for the circuit embracing the district.”  Under a straightforward reading of § 1294, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s decision should have been appealed to the Third Circuit, not the Sixth.

Yet the Sixth Circuit did not take that position in Kalama.  Instead, it held that it may review a non-final order issued by a district court outside of the Sixth Circuit if the case eventually reaches a final judgment within the Sixth Circuit.  Under the court’s reasoning, all previous non-final orders “merge” with the final judgment and become appealable in the court of appeals embracing the district court that issues the final judgment.  The Seventh, D.C., Fourth, and Second Circuits also follow this theory.

While this “merger” theory appears to contradict § 1294, in the Sixth Circuit’s opinion that is not so.  In Kalama, the court followed the D.C. Circuit by expressly adopting an interpretation of § 1294 that comports with the merger theory.  According to the Sixth Circuit, a “reviewable” decision is synonymous with an “appealable” decision.  A non-final order, such as the partial dismissal in Kalama, is not “reviewable”—that is, appealable—until the case reaches a final judgment.  Thus, under the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation, § 1294 authorizes appeal of a non-final order to the court of appeals embracing the district court that ends up reaching a final judgment.  In Kalama, that court was the Sixth Circuit.

The Tenth and Eleventh Circuits disagree.  Both have rejected the merger theory, and both hold that, under the plain language of § 1294, any decision arising in a district court within a sister court of appeals must be appealed to that court of appeals.  According to the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, “reviewable” is not synonymous with “immediately appealable.”

Furthermore, neither court minds that this interpretation can practically leave a party without the opportunity to appeal a decision.  For example, imagine that you are representing a defendant in an action initially filed in Colorado (a Tenth Circuit state), but recently consolidated into multidistrict litigation in Alabama (an Eleventh Circuit state).  The Alabama district court denies your motion for summary judgment and refuses your request for the court to certify its decision for immediate review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b).  You have no right to appeal the district court’s interlocutory decision at this stage.  Next, the district court in Alabama re-transfers your case to the district court in Colorado for trial, where you lose.  Now, you would want to appeal the Alabama court’s initial denial of your motion for summary judgment, but the Tenth Circuit’s interpretation of § 1294 prevents it.  You are left without an avenue to appeal the decision.

Luckily for practitioners within the Sixth Circuit, including Tennessee, this conundrum should not arise under the rule announced in Kalama.  As long as a case reaches final judgment within the Sixth Circuit, any interlocutory decisions may safely be appealed to the Sixth Circuit.  However, practitioners should keep their guard up when a case is transferred out of the Sixth Circuit to the Tenth or Eleventh.  In that circumstance, it is prudent to make every effort available to get an unfavorable, interlocutory decision reviewed before transfer—through either Rule 54(b) or § 1292(b), or by seeking an extraordinary writ—because the opportunity may be lost post-transfer.