Fort Worth Court Grants Newspapers Access To Sealed Court Records in Settled Sex-Abuse Case

Today’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a story titled “Sex abuse records on priest who served in Arlington and Bedford should be released, court says”.

Nguyen v. Dallas Morning News out of the Fort Worth Court. ( docket sheet ).

This is not the usual sex-abuse case — that part of the case was already settled. After that settlement, two local newspapers intervened seeking to have the Diocese’s records (which were at one point considered by the district judge in camera) declared to be court records and unsealed so they can be publicly revealed.

At the hearing, the parties presented arguments and evidence in the form of newspaper articles and affidavits. The newspapers and the Doe intervenors argued that the files should be unsealed because the public was exposed to a continuing threat, the clerics had no right of privacy in actions of sexual misconduct, and there was a legitimate public interest in the information. The Diocese, Father Tu, and the other six clerics asserted that the files should remain sealed because they had personal privacy rights in the files and that the “voluminous” newspaper articles about the clerics showed that the public was already aware of the allegations.

The Doe plaintiffs, although they had settled the underlying lawsuit, joined the newspapers in arguing for the release of these materials. In fact, they submitted affidavits recounting their side of the underlying story in some detail. The trial court ruled that the materials should be released.

The court of appeals determined that the documents originally submitted under seal were court records because they were filed with the district court (although sealed at the time) for in camera inspection at the summary-judgment phase. And the court of appeals rejected the reverend’s due process claim (for lack of preservation) and his First Amendment / privacy claim (because it concluded the subject matter was of legitimate public concern).

One wonders if the court of appeals could have reached the same result if the Doe plaintiffs had opposed release (that might have changed the privacy interests at stake). But what if the Doe plaintiffs had been silent, perhaps pursuant to different settlement terms? Interesting questions here about newspapers and the ability of settlements to keep disputes private.

“On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog”.

Perhaps not in the court system, either.

There has been a remarkably contentious “dog custody” dispute between a New Orleans resident who lost track a dog (named Jazz) in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina and an Austin resident who adopted a dog around the same time (and named it Hope).

A suit for “conversion” was brought in Hays County. (You don’t see “conversion” suits much these days, but they do permit a court to award possession of property to its rightful owner.)

The trial court heard — and I’m not kidding — mitochondrial DNA evidence from an expert that attempted to link the disputed dog to some of Jazz’s canine relatives. And the trial court also heard veterinary evidence about the types of medical conditions present in the disputed dog (which was an older dog) and whether those were consistent with Jazz’s prior condition and the stress of the Hurricane evacuation.

The trial court didn’t buy it and after a bench trial rendered summary judgment in favor of the Austin resident, keeping the dog as “Hope.” The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the trial court’s conclusion was legally insufficient and thus rendered judgment the other way. The court of appeals concluded that the DNA evidence (among other evidence) was conclusive proof that this dog was “Jazz.”

Justice Henson wrote the opinion of the court. Justice Patterson concurred in judgment only.

Justice Henson’s majority opinion concludes with this footnote, commenting on the legal framework governing pet “custody,” which is actually the same body of property law applicable to any chattel:

We also note the obvious dissonance between the emotional investment at the heart of the human-pet relationship and the current legal system, which identifies this eleven-year-old cocker spaniel with chronic health problems as “property,” subject to suit for conversion and identified in terms of her economic worth. Given the parties’ considerable expenditure in this case, it goes without saying that Jazz’s significance as a cherished member of Augillard’s family—as well as her importance to her caretakers of almost three years, Tiffany Madura and Richard Toro—far exceeds her market value. Thus, while resolving this appeal in accordance with the applicable law governing ownership of chattel, we recognize that there are important non-economic interests at stake in this case. As one commentator has remarked,

People do not plan memorial services, or invest in serious medical treatment for their books or lawnmowers. They don’t plan to pay more in insurance premiums than the purchase price or replacement cost of the property they seek to protect. Individuals do not leave money for their bicycles in their wills, or seek visitation arrangements for their televisions upon the termination of their marriages.

Kathy Hessler, Mediating Animal Law Matters, 2 J. Animal L. & Ethics 21, 28 (2007).