Motion to Seal
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Third-Party Licensing Information May Be Exception to General Right of Public Access to Court Records

In a second appeal relating to sealing third-party licensing information, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s order denying a motion to seal because the district court failed to follow the Federal Circuit’s previous instruction to make particularized determinations regarding the information. Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Apple Inc., Case No. 21-1568 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 9, 2022) (Lourie, Cunningham, JJ.) (Mayer, J., dissenting).

In a previous decision, the Federal Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion to seal with regard to information pertaining to Uniloc but vacated and remanded the denial of the motion to seal with regard to certain third-party licensing information. The Court instructed the district court to “make particularized determinations as to whether and, if so, to what extent, the materials of each of these [third] parties should be made public.”

On remand, the district court again denied the motion to seal the third-party licensing information. The district court made findings regarding the relative weight of the public’s interest in accessing judicial records, including patent licensing information. It also found that the particular licensing information at issue was relevant to a dispute over Uniloc’s standing to sue. With regard to one particular third party, Uniloc’s financier Fortress Credit Co. LLC, the district court denied the motion to seal because Fortress had not complied with Local Rule 79-5(e)(1) of the Northern District of California, which requires that a supporting declaration be filed. Uniloc appealed a second time.

The Federal Circuit found that the district court failed to follow its instructions to make particularized determinations regarding whether the third-party licensing information sought to be sealed should be made public. Accordingly, the Court remanded for the district court to carry out the inquiry it had previously ordered.

The Federal Circuit also noted its disagreement with certain statements the district court had made in its order denying the motion to seal. The district court had stated that “[t]he public has an interest in inspecting the valuation of patent rights . . . particularly given secrecy so often plays into the patentee’s advantage in forcing bloated royalties.” The Federal Circuit stated that the district court committed “an error of law in making a blanket ruling that the public has a broad right to licensing information relating to patents.” While the district court had stated that the public has a strong interest in knowing the full extent of the terms and conditions involved in the exercise of its patent rights and in seeing the extent to which the patentee’s exercise of the government grant affects commerce, the Federal Circuit wrote that “[a]bsent an issue raised by the parties concerning license rights and provisions, there is no public interest or entitlement to information concerning consideration for the grant of licenses.” And while the amount Uniloc received in royalties was relevant to the dispute regarding standing, the Court wrote that “that fact can be proved without opening up all the licenses that the court granted [...]

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Sixth Circuit Endorses Sealing of Filings to Protect Confidentiality of Alleged Trade Secrets

On appeal from a dismissal based on a failure to state a claim for misappropriation of trade secrets, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted the litigants’ motion to seal their briefs and file publicly available redacted versions in order to protect the confidentiality of the appellant’s alleged trade secrets. Magnesium Machine, LLC v. Terves, LLC, Case No. 20-3998 (6th Cir. Jan. 14, 2022) (Donald, J.)

The Sixth Circuit reasoned that the case had been brought under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, which requires courts to take “action as may be necessary and appropriate to preserve the confidentiality of trade secrets.” The Court also relied on precedent to the effect that trade secrets generally provide a justification (i.e., a “compelling reason”) for sealing. The Court left open the possibility of reconsidering its ruling if it later determines that any of the redacted information should be made available to the public.

Practice Note: Public disclosure—even in a court document—can destroy a trade secret. Litigants should be careful when disclosing information that is even alleged to be a trade secret, even if they are not certain whether the information qualifies as a trade secret since, if and when litigated, the information may later be held to qualify.

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For Certain Not Secret Now: Court Declines to Seal Alleged Trade Secret in Amended Complaint

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit affirmed a decision declining to seal information in an amended complaint where the defendant failed to prove that the information was a trade secret. DePuy Synthes Products, Inc. v. Veterinary Orthopedic Implants, Inc., Case No. 20-1514 (Fed. Cir. Mar. 12, 2021) (Dyk, J.)

After DePuy sued Veterinary Orthopedic Implants (VOI) for patent infringement, the district court issued a protective order providing that “supplier . . . names and identifying information” would be treated as “Highly Confidential Material—Attorney Eyes Only.” DePuy later filed an amended complaint containing such information when it joined VOI’s manufacturer as a defendant. The amended complaint disclosed the manufacturer as such and alleged additional facts about the defendants’ relationship. VOI argued that the manufacturer’s identity and additional facts about the VOI-manufacturer relationship should be sealed as trade secrets. DePuy argued that the manufacturer’s identity was already public, but took no position regarding the additional facts. After the district court declined to seal the amended complaint, VOI appealed.

The Federal Circuit first considered whether it had jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine and whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion to seal.

The Federal Circuit found that it had jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine because:

  • The district court’s order conclusively determined the sealing issue.
  • The sealing issue was important although unrelated to the merits of the infringement claim.
  • Meaningful review after final judgment would be impossible because disclosed information can never be secret again.

On the merits, the Federal Circuit found no abuse of discretion, reasoning that there was no clear error in the district court’s finding that the manufacturer’s identity was not a trade secret where (1) the manufacturer openly advertised itself as an orthopedic manufacturer, (2) the manufacturer and VOI did not have a confidentiality agreement or a confidential relationship giving rise to an implied obligation of confidentiality, and (3) a third-party email suggested that VOI’s relationship with the manufacturer was “known within the relevant community.” The Court further found no abuse of discretion in the district court’s declining to seal the additional allegations despite DePuy’s non-opposition because the district court was required to independently weigh the parties’ interest in confidentiality against the public right of access.

Practice Note: Parties routinely seek sealing of information that may not qualify as formal trade secrets. The district court’s duty to independently evaluate sealing means that parties must be prepared to articulate the particularized harm they will suffer absent sealing or risk the public disclosure of the information, even where the parties agree to treat information confidentially.

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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 . . [...]

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