No Sealing of Files in Eviction Proceedings

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From Barfield v. Doe, decided today by the Florida Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Judge Jeffrey Kuntz, joined by Judges Martha Warner & Edward Artau:

The litigants in the eviction proceeding sought to shield an entire court file from public disclosure. They argued a landlord filed an eviction action after agreeing not to do so and that the landlord received the rental payments before the action was filed. So the litigants argued that public disclosure of the eviction action was potentially defamatory and would affect the tenants’ creditworthiness. Citing Florida Rule of General Practice and Judicial Administration Rule 2.420(c)(9)(A)(vi) (2022), the county court accepted these reasons as a basis to seal portions of the court file….

There is a presumption that court files are open to the public and “[e]very person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body … except with respect to records exempted pursuant to this section or specifically made confidential by this Constitution.” The judicial branch is “specifically include[d]” in this provision, Fla. R. Gen. Prac. & Jud. Admin. Rule 2.420(a) provides that “[t]he public shall have access to all records of the judicial branch of government, except” as provided in Rule 2.420….

Rule 2.420(c)(9)(A)(vi) allows a court to shield a proceeding or record from the public when confidentiality is required to “avoid substantial injury to a party by disclosure of matters protected by a common law or privacy right not generally inherent in the specific type of proceeding sought to be closed.” But “litigants cannot have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to matters that are inherent to their civil proceedings.” Nor can the agreement of all litigants justify shielding a judicial record from public view.

In this case, the names of litigants are matters inherent to the civil proceeding. The understandable desire of those litigants to shield their names from public disclosure cannot justify doing so. As a result, and absent some other valid basis to shield the information from disclosure, the names cannot be hidden from public view.

For a similar decision from Washington, see here.

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