What is the analysis that a federal court undertakes when a third-party comes into court seeking an order to break the seal on confidential deposition transcripts from another lawsuit?

Mr. William Plourde and Ms. Freda Merill (“the Plourde Plaintiffs”) sought an order from the U.S. District Court (D. Minn) (Tunheim, C.J.) to give them access to deposition transcripts in a case that went to trial before Judge Tunheim, Sorin Group v. St. Jude Medical (about which we had several posts over some years).

Mr. Plourde and Ms. Merill wanted access to deposition transcripts of former Sorin employees from the Minnesota litigation for use in their lawsuit against Sorin now pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts (having been removed from state court). That lawsuit concerns the death of Allison Plourde, allegedly caused by a Sorin Mitroflow Heart Valve.

Sorin objected to giving lawyers for the Plourde Plaintiffs access to the deposition transcripts. These depositions were of former Sorin employees who decamped to St. Jude. The Sorin v. St. Jude case did not concern the defective (or non-defective) nature of the Sorin Heart Valve. Sorin’s arguments, therefore, were (1) that the Plourde Plaintiffs’ motion for access to the deposition transcripts was improper so the request could be denied even before considering the merits; and (2) assuming the motion were proper, the Plourde Plaintiffs should still be denied access because Sorin’s interest in the confidentiality of the transcripts outweighed the public’s interest in the transcripts.

Judge Tunheim ruled that the deposition testimony was not “a judicial record,” which is presumptively public. Further, since the testimony was not part of the Court’s decision-making, the public had little interest. Further, the issues in Sorin v. St. Jude were not whether or not the Sorin Heart Valve was defective and, therefore, Sorin might be unfairly prejudiced.

The decision does not sit all that well with us. A major problem with civil litigation is cost, of course. Depositions are very expensive. It would seem efficient for the Plourde Plaintiffs to have the deposition transcripts rather than facing the probably unaffordable alternative of re-deposing the witnesses. As for Sorin’s inability to deal the first time around with testimony about the defective (or non-defective) Heart Valve, presumably that might be addressed later in the fight (if it occurs) as to the admissibility of any testimony as evidence?

But maybe this is one of those many decisions where the Court (and the Plourde Plaintiffs) were hog-tied by the applicable law and there was no way around it. For example, it seems puzzling that the options that the Court had before it were “sealed” or “unsealed (i.e., “public”) without any other alternative (such as subject to a protective order in the Massachusetts case) but maybe these are the only options that the Court and the Plourde Plaintiffs could seek (or order).

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