by Dennis Crouch
In-court secrecy continues to thrive – at least in regards to protecting business interests. Almost all patent infringement lawsuits include secrecy orders negotiated by the parties without much court participation. Courts often view themselves as arbiters of disputes between the parties – and if the parties agree on a particular issue then there is no dispute.
The right to secrecy in federal courts was upped a bit further with the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 in situations where the parties don’t agree. The DTSA includes a requirement that a court “may not authorize or direct the disclosure of any information the owner asserts to be a trade secret” without first allowing an under-seal submission of a description of the confidential interest. 18 U.S.C. 1835. Although not stated, the implication is that the court must then review the submission before requiring disclosure.
The Federal Circuit allows submission of confidential appellate briefs, but requires non-confidential versions to also be submitted with the filings – basically blacking-out the particular confidential information. Further, Federal Circuit Rule 28(d)(1)(A) requires that a party seeking to mark confidential more than 15 words in its brief must petition the court. That petition was filed and granted in the case of Georgetown Rail Equipment v. Holland L.P. In granting the motion, the court wrote that:
Georgetown Rail Equipment is seeking additional words to mark portions of its response brief describing confidential pricing information, confidential internal financial information, contractual terms relating to confidential agreements with customers, and confidential information of two non-parties. Those details were designated as confidential in the underlying proceedings. In light of the limited and focused nature of the proposed markings, the court will grant the motion.
When it comes to issuing an actual opinion, an important question is whether the Federal Circuit (or lower court) is bound by the confidentiality of a submission under seal containing trade secret information. I.e., may the court publicly disclose a trade secret – and thus destroy the property right; if disclosing a trade secret submitted under seal, must the court first weigh the public interest in open courts against the harm of disclosure; and would an improper disclosure by the court be seen as a taking?
I have talked through some of these issues with Federal Circuit judges who indicated their usual pathway is to attempt to avoid disclosing the secret information in the opinion – if possible. In Georgetown Rail Equipment v. Holland L.P., however, the court apparently found that approach untenable and instead issued decision on August 1 under seal: Sealed Judgement and Opinion. At the same time, the court issued an Order to Show Cause as to “why the opinion should not be unsealed.” The court writes:
Because the record in this case contains extensive material marked as confidential, the court has issued its opinion dated August 1, 2017 under seal. The court does not believe, however, that the opinion contains confidential material. The parties are hereby ordered to show cause, by means of a single joint response coordinated among the parties, why the opinion should not be unsealed. The response to this order must specify which words, if any, are proposed to be redacted, and must specifically state the cause for each such requested redaction. If the parties propose redactions, the response to this order must also propose specific words to replace each of the proposed redactions in an unsealed opinion. The joint response shall be filed no later than August 15, 2017.
[Order to Show Cause] [Aside: It will be interesting to see the redacted version of the submission.]
The court is on the right track with this order. However, it is also problematic because it focuses parties on the question of whether “the opinion contains confidential material” as if that is the sole question. The parties are hereby ordered to show cause, by means of a single joint response coordinated among the parties, why the opinion should not be unsealed. A proper analysis of the issues will take the next step of explaining why the parties’ private interest in confidentiality in the court proceeding outweighs the storied tradition of open and public courts.
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Redaction with Replacement: The court here also provides an innovative suggestion that could transform the redaction process. Rather than simply blacking-out information from its opinion, the court here asks the parties to “propose specific words to replace each of the proposed redactions in an unsealed opinion.” Redaction with replacement is likely the gold-standard approach for judicial opinions and appellate briefs, but we’ll see how it works in this case.
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The patent at issue here is U.S. Patent No. 7,616,329 covering a method for inspecting railroad. Most of the redactions in the briefs fit in the following pattern:
He testified that, but for Holland’s infringement, Georgetown would have inspected XXXXX miles of track for UP over a XXXXXXX period at a rate of $XXXXX, thereby realizing $XXXXX in revenues.