Thursday, April 10, 2014

Judge declines to seal suit against Midway College, says he would consider request for specific documents

By Bridget Slone
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

A judge denied Midway College’s request Wednesday to seal public records of a lawsuit filed by seven former employees claiming breach of contract and age discrimination.

Leila O’Carra, an attorney for the college, had filed a motion asking the court to “seal the entire record in this case” in an attempt to prevent “sensitive” financial documents that could cause the college “significant harm” from being released to the public.

According to the lawsuit filed last month, the seven plaintiffs received letters from the college “on or around” Sept. 20, 2013, informing them that “due to alleged financial hardships” it was terminating its contracts on the grounds of lack of “available funding.”  

In the hearing at the Woodford County Courthouse, Circuit Judge Paul Isaacs, right, said the college’s motion to seal the entire record when the case “hasn’t even started” is “extreme.”

O’Carra argued that the legitimate public interest in the case is “minimal” since the dispute relates solely to the employment relationship between the college and the plaintiffs and there are no allegations implicating the public safety or health and, as a result, the judge should exercise the broad discretion that the law gives him to seal the entire record.

Isaacs said he was hesitant to do so because the same discretion would be sought by other businesses.

O’Carra replied that the college’s interests were “compelling” since it wants to seal financial information and because she does not “think the public interest,” in regards to these particular documents, “is affected.”

O’Carra also argued that the sealing of the records would be important in protecting those who are not parties in the suit.

 “You’re asking me to seal documents I haven’t seen,” said Isaacs, noting that he could not know if the documents present a privacy issue if he has not seen them.

Isaacs also said the college’s motion to seal the entire record suggests there “might be something embarrassing to the college” and that is why it wants to close it off from the public.

While Isaacs did overrule the motion, he also said he would “entertain the idea” of sealing specific documents within the case that contained sensitive financial information.

The plaintiffs Richard Berry, 61; Eric Bolland, 66; Stephen Clark, 65; Francis Fletcher, 61; former Lexington mayor Teresa Isaac, 58; Wendy Hoffman, 57; and Saleem Mirza, 52, allege that they did not seek employment anywhere else because they relied on the contracts presented to them in May 2013 and were never advised that those contracts would be terminated.

Midway College also filed a motion seeking dismissal of the plaintiffs’ “promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance” count of the lawsuit. The college argues that because the plaintiffs are also claiming breach of contract they cannot also claim promissory estoppel and “as a matter of law” it “must be dismissed.”

The college has also asked for more time to respond to the suit so that it can make its “response only to those claims that remain pending after the court rules on the motion to dismiss” the estoppel count.

Isaacs did not rule on this motion, but did imply that he agreed with the college’s argument and would dismiss the estoppel count.

UPDATE, July 3: Isaacs declined to dismiss the estoppel count, writing in an order filed July 1 that "Plaintiffs are persuasive in their distinction that their promissory-estoppel claim hinges not on the promise contained within their contracts, but in their extra-contractual discourse with their respective hiring authority." Isaacs also formally rejected the request to seal the record, but said the college could request that parts of material obtained in the discovery process, through subpoenas and depositions, be sealed. Isaacs also gave the college more time to reply to the lawsuit.

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