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Third Parties Not Responsible for Defective Motion to Seal

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that a district court did not abuse its discretion in denying reconsideration of a previous order denying a litigant’s defective motion to seal  with regard to the litigant’s own information, but vacated and remanded for further consideration with regard to third-party information. Uniloc 2017 LLC v. Apple, Inc., Case Nos. 19-1922, -1923, -1925, ‑1926 (Fed. Cir. July 9, 2020) (Mayer, J.).

Uniloc sued Apple for patent infringement in the Northern District of California. Apple moved to dismiss. The briefing on the motion included material that Uniloc had designated as highly confidential. Both parties filed motions to seal. Uniloc’s motions to seal covered quotations from published opinions and matters of public record, among other things. Uniloc’s supporting declarations included only boilerplate assertions of harm from disclosure. Non-party Electronic Frontier Foundation asked Uniloc to narrow its redactions, and when Uniloc declined, Electronic Frontier moved to intervene for the purpose of opposing Uniloc’s sealing motions. The district court denied the motions to seal as overbroad under the local rules, which require such motions to be narrowly tailored.

Uniloc sought an extension of time and ultimately filed a motion for leave to seek reconsideration. In that motion, it agreed to make public more than 90% of the material it had originally sought to seal. It also filed a new motion to seal the remainder. In support, it attached a much more specific declaration supporting sealing the more limited set of materials, as well as several declarations of third-party licensees, who stated that disclosure of their confidential information would be harmful to them. The court denied the motion seeking leave as not meeting the local rules’ requirements for reconsideration. The court also denied the narrower motion to seal, reasoning that Uniloc should have filed a proper motion to seal in the first instance. Uniloc appealed.

Uniloc argued that the district court had abused its discretion in denying the narrower motion to seal. In considering Uniloc’s argument, the Federal Circuit distinguished between Uniloc’s information and third-party information. Applying Ninth Circuit law, the Court held that the district court had not abused its discretion by strictly enforcing its local rules with regard to Uniloc’s information. Uniloc had violated the local rules in its motion to seal and subsequent motion for reconsideration. Moreover, the Court explained that notwithstanding the submission of a narrowly tailored motion, the burden is always on the moving party to provide compelling reasons for sealing, which Uniloc had failed to do.

Next, the Federal Circuit explained that third-party information “calls for an analysis not dependent on the overbreadth rationale” because third parties should not be harmed by a litigant’s failure to follow the local rules. Because the district court’s analysis had been based on overbreadth, the Court found that the district court “failed to make findings sufficient to allow us to adequately assess whether it properly balanced the public’s right of access against the interests of the third parties in shielding their . . . information from public view.” It thus remanded to the district court for further consideration of this issue.

Practice Note: In dicta, the Federal Circuit notified the bar that it considered overbroad motions to seal to be a problem in patent litigation, and characterized the district court as having sent “a strong message that litigants should submit narrow, well-supported sealing requests in the first instance.” Parties should narrowly tailor requests to seal and support such requests with declarations identifying specific harms stemming from the disclosure of the particular information sought to be sealed as well as the parties’ efforts to keep the information secret.

© 2022 McDermott Will & EmeryNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 204
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