United States District Court, D. Kansas
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
D. CRABTREE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
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.
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)).
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).
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.
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.
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)).
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)).
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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 ...