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Fulson v. NPC Quality Burgers, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Kansas

April 24, 2019

CHANITA FULSON, as Natural Mother of Minor, M.D., Plaintiff,
v.
NPC QUALITY BURGERS, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DANIEL D. CRABTREE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff and defendant have filed a Joint Motion for Approval of Minor's Settlement (Doc. 22). This motion asks the court to approve a proposed settlement that will resolve all disputes in the case. Specifically, their motion advises that the parties mediated with a mutually agreeable mediator on February 26, 2019. After several hours, they agreed to settle plaintiff's claims. But because plaintiff M.D. is a minor, the parties believe, they must submit their putative settlement to the court for review and approval. The court agrees with their conclusion.

         Here, plaintiff has invoked the court's subject matter jurisdiction over claims presenting a federal question. Specifically, her Complaint asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 (sexual harassment in employment) and § 2000e-3 (retaliation). Whether a minor plaintiff must secure court approval of an agreement to resolve a federal claim is a relatively unsettled question. But this court and others have applied state law to evaluate proposed settlement of such claims. See, e.g., S.C., as Parent and Next Friend of A.J., a Minor v. Lansing Unified Sch. Dist. # 469, No. 18-2228 (D. Kan. April 10, 2019) (Doc. 49). In S.C., the court concluded that the Tenth Circuit had not addressed this issue directly. But the court predicted that our Circuit, if presented with the question, would adopt the approach applied in Nice v. Centennial Area Sch. Dist., 98 F.Supp.2d 665, 667-69 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (citing Reo v. U.S. Postal Serv., 98 F.3d 73 (3d Cir. 1996)). See Robidoux v. Rosengren, 638 F.3d 1177, 1181 (9th Cir. 2011) (concluding district court's duty to review settlement involving minor plaintiff derives from Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(c)).

         In Nice, a minor plaintiff had asserted a claim under another federal civil rights law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. When asked to approve a putative settlement of that minor's claim, the Pennsylvania federal court concluded that § 1983 doesn't provide a “rule of decision” whether a federal court should review a minor's compromise of a civil rights claim. So it turned to state law because, traditionally, state law has developed the law controlling family matters. Thus, Nice used state law principles to evaluate the minor's settlement of his federal claim. 98 F.Supp.2d at 669; see also J.B., a Minor, by W.B., Her Father & Nat. Guardian v. Troon Fla. Leasing Co., LLC, No. 3:18-cv-01492-MCR-EMT, 2018 WL 7317043, at *1 (N.D. Fla. Nov. 14, 2018) (applying state law when approving settlement in context of Title VII claims).

         The court finds Nice's reasoning persuasive and, in the absence of controlling authority, adopts it here. This conclusion leads to one more choice of law question: which state's law should the court apply? Plaintiff alleges she was employed by defendant NPC Quality Burgers, Inc., a Kansas corporation. Plaintiff resided in Kansas during the time germane to her claims and, she alleges, she worked at one of defendant's restaurants in Kansas. Also, plaintiff alleges that the harassing and retaliatory conduct occurred in Kansas. In sum, all known factors favor Kansas law and nothing favors a contrary conclusion. The court thus follows Kansas law to decide whether review is required and, if so, the standard governing the review.

         This leaves one final threshold question. During the settlement review hearing, the parties asked the court to refrain from discussing the specific parameters of their putative settlement in a public order. In generalized fashion, they made two arguments to support this request. First, plaintiff argued, disclosing the settlement's specifics would provide aspiring wrongdoers with adequate information to: (1) identify the minor plaintiff; and (2) motivate them to deprive her wrongfully of the settlement's proceeds. Next, defendant argued that it preferred not to publicize its decision to settle employment claims. But the parties conceded that confidentiality wasn't a condition of their settlement agreement. They plan to settle the case- assuming the court approves the settlement-even if the court rejects their sealing request.

         Deciding this confidentiality request begins with the legal standard adopted by the Supreme Court and refined by our Circuit. “It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978) (footnote omitted). This right is independent of “a proprietary interest in the document or upon a need for it as evidence in a lawsuit.” Id. Instead, “[t]he interest necessary to support . . . compel[ed] access has been found, for example, in the citizen's desire to keep a watchful eye on the workings of public agencies.” Id. at 597-98. “Likewise, the common law right to access court records ‘is an important aspect of the overriding concern with preserving the integrity of the law enforcement and judicial processes.'” United States v. Walker, F. App'x, 2019 WL 325111, at *8 (10th Cir. Jan. 23, 2019) (quoting United States v. Hickey, 767 F.2d 705, 708 (10th Cir. 1985)).

         The confluence of these principles creates “a strong presumption in favor of public access, ” as “the interests of the public . . . are presumptively paramount[ ] [when weighed] against those advanced by the parties.” United States v. Pickard, 733 F.3d 1297, 1302 (10th Cir. 2013) (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted). Three factors, perhaps among others, support the strong presumption favoring public access. Walker, 2019 WL 325111, at *8. First, the purposes served by “public access to judicial records are heightened when ‘the district court use[s] the sealed documents to determine litigants' substantive legal rights.'” Id. (quoting Pickard, 733 F.3d at 1302). Second, where a judge decides the question, not a jury, the importance of public access is “even more significant.” See Id. (citing Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court of Cal., 478 U.S. 1, 12-13 (1986); In re Hearst Newspapers, L.L.C., 641 F.3d 168, 179 (5th Cir. 2011) (“[T]he fact that there is no jury at the sentencing proceeding, in contrast to jury trials, heightens the need for public access.”)). Third, where the sealed information already has been disclosed in a public proceeding, “a party's personal interest in sealing the material is diminished.” Id. (citing Pickard, 733 F.3d at 1305; Mann v. Boatright, 477 F.3d 1140, 1149 (10th Cir. 2007)).

         But the right of public access to judicial records is “not absolute, ” as “[e]very court has supervisory power over its own records and files, ” thus providing it with authority to seal court documents. Nixon, 435 U.S. at 598; see Pickard, 733 F.3d at 1300. So, “the ‘strong presumption of openness can be overcome where countervailing interests heavily outweigh the public interests in access.'” Walker, 2019 WL 325111, at *9 (quoting Pickard, 733 F.3d at 1302 (emphasis added) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Putting it another way, “[t]he party seeking to seal any part of a judicial record bears the heavy burden of showing that the material is the kind of information that courts will protect and that disclosure will work a clearly defined and serious injury to the party seeking closure.” Id. (quoting Miller v. Ind. Hosp., 16 F.3d 549, 551 (3d Cir. 1994)).

         The leading cases identify some situations where public access properly gives way to the interest in sealing or other limited access. They include circumstances where the records are likely to be used for “improper purposes, ” including “‘to gratify private spite or promote public scandal, '” or to “serve as reservoirs of libelous statements for press consumption.” Nixon, 435 U.S. at 598 (quoting In re Caswell, 29 A. 259, 259 (R.I. 1893)). But even in these situations, any limit imposed on public access must be “narrowly tailored to serve th[e] interest” that sealing or other restricted access will protect. Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 13- 14 (1986); see Pickard, 733 F.3d at 1304.

         The parties' arguments here don't carry the burden required to displace the strong presumption favoring public access. The first argument-a sealed or, at most, vague discussion of the settlement is needed to protect plaintiff from potential grifters who might wrongfully deprive her of the settlement's proceeds-has some appeal. After all, plaintiff has litigated this case as a minor and she has a commendable plan for using the settlement's proceeds: to pursue her education. But the proposed settlement's structure protects the minor plaintiff until she turns 18. As discussed more fully below, the parties propose to use the procedure adopted in Section 59-3055(a) of the Kansas Statutes Annotated. This statute delays a minor plaintiff's access to funds until the minor turns 18. This provision provides no restriction, however, on a person who has turned 18. The court does not believe the federal judiciary should expand the protections that Kansas law has elected to provide. In short, the court has concluded that it should evaluate the settlement under Kansas law. It declines to add its own gloss to that state's law.

         The second argument is less compelling. This argument contends that it is in defendant's interests not to publicize settlement of employment claims. Perhaps that is so, and defendant is free to impose that confidentiality requirement in any settlement it reaches with a person who has achieved majority age. The complicating fact here is that defendant has chosen to settle a claim made by a minor plaintiff. That settlement, defendant agrees, is conditioned on court approval. The public's interest in knowing why the court has decided to approve a compromise of a minor's claim exceeds defendant's interest in confidential settlements. This is particularly so when, as here, confidentiality is not a condition precedent of the proposed settlement. And at the very least, the defendant's interest is insufficient to displace the “strong presumption” favoring public access.

         With these threshold issues decided, the court now addresses the substantive question presented by the parties' joint motion: Does Kansas law require court approval of a settlement with a minor? And if so, does the putative settlement comply with the standard adopted by Kansas law?

         On the first question, calling court approval a “requirement” may overstate it a bit. The more precise-and pragmatic-expression of the principle is to say that Kansas law requires court approval of a settlement contract before it will bind a minor plaintiff. Childs By & Through Harvey v. Williams, 757 P.2d 302, 303 (Kan. 1988). (“Because a minor can disavow a contract within a reasonable time after reaching ...


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