Seventh Circuit Refuses to Seal Opinion That Discloses Sensitive Medical Information

In Mitze v. Saul, No. 19-3212 (7th Cir. July 31, 2020) (per curiam), the Seventh Circuit reminds litigants that only extraordinary circumstances justify the sealing of a judicial opinion, and that preventing the disclosure of personal medical information alone is insufficient.

In 2013, the plaintiff filed an action appealing the denial of Social Security benefits; in 2017, the Seventh Circuit affirmed that denial. Some years later, Mitze moved to seal the “medical information . . . and all other information pertaining to [her] case” in the court files, citing “harassing phone calls from solicitors” that she’d received since the decisions were published. She complained “not only that she and her children have experienced social stigma, but also that thieves broke into her home to steal pain medication, which publicly available documents revealed that she had been prescribed.” She also attached media coverage of her case.

The district court denied the motion, citing the “long- standing tradition” of public access to the courts’ decisions.

The Seventh Circuit affirms. The panel notes that sealing of entire opinions is extraordinary, and that even “in cases involving substantial countervailing privacy interests such as state secrets, trade secrets, and attorney- client privilege, courts have opted for redacting instead of sealing the order or opinion.”

While noting that such lesser methods might prospectively be available to protect private medical information in Social Security appeals (they also mention the possibility of a Jane Doe complaint), in this case the horse was long out of the barn. “Given everything that has transpired over the years, we cannot revisit the application of these standard practices regarding the publication of judicial decisions and orders in social security matters.”

Moreover, the court holds, the disclosure of such information may simply be the cost of litigation. “When unsuccessful applicants for disability benefits seek judicial review, they can expect (at least under today’s practices) that the medical basis of the claim will become public. In such cases, federal courts have a responsibility to review the decision of an administrative law judge to determine whether there is substantial evidence—primarily
medical evidence—in the administrative record to support the decision.”

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