Judge rules Sarasota Memorial case exhibits will remain unsealed despite parties' agreement

By Karen Kidd | May 6, 2019

TAMPA — Exhibits in a large Sarasota County medical center's lawsuit against a New York-based health care payers' cost management company will not be sealed, despite both parties agreeing they should be, a federal judge ruled last month.

In his six-page order issued March 18, U.S. District Court James D. Whittemore of the Florida's Middle District, Tampa Division said "inherent authority and discretion to seal records" lies with the trial courts, not with parties in a case. Whittemore made that observation as he denied agreed motions to seal exhibits in the lawsuit by Sarasota County Public Hospital District, doing business as Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, against Multiplan Inc.

"Decisions on motions to seal must balance the public's common law right of access against the interests favoring confidentiality," Whittemore said in his order. "The common law right of access is implicated by any pretrial motion that requires judicial resolution of the merits, including summary judgment motions, motions in limine, and Daubert motions, and can be overcome only by a showing of good cause."

Sarasota Memorial Health Care System is an 819-bed community-owned medical operation founded in 1925. It is is one of the state's largest and one of Sarasota County's largest employers with more than 5,000 staff, 900 physicians and 600 volunteers, according to its website.

Multiplan, with headquarters on New York's Fifth Avenue, was incorporated in 1980. It started out as a New York hospital network and grew to provide cost management solutions in the health care industry, according to information on its website.

Sarasota Memorial has not accepted Multiplan coverage since late October 2017, according to its website.

The agreed motions identified four categories that Sarasota Memorial and Multiplan agreed should be sealed. Those categories cover a participating facility agreement, spreadsheets with protected health information of non-party patients and clients who underpaid claims at issue in the case, a list of client contracts and contract excerpts and a spreadsheet of more than 9,000 claims allegedly repriced.

The agreed motions said a proposed report from a Sarasota Memorial expert witness also should be sealed for the live of the lawsuit, including possible appeal.

The motions to seal fail the "good cause" test as established under the 2001 11th Circuit case Chicago Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Whittemore said in his order. He added that "more is required" to show why the right of public access to the courts "should give way" the parties' agreed confidentiality interest.

"The decision to seal is the trial court's prerogative, not the parties'," Whittemore said in his order. "The right to file a document under seal does not automatically follow a confidentiality designation."

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