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Can Private Agreements Override Public Access to Court Records

On May 14, 2024, Vice Chancellor Morgan T. Zurn of the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a ruling in the case of Product Madness, Inc. v. Brooke Kingston (C.A. No. 2024-0040-MTZ), addressing a contentious dispute over the confidentiality of arbitration-related documents.


The Genesis of the Dispute

Product Madness, Inc., a digital entertainment company known for its mobile applications and web-based games, found itself in arbitration with Brooke Kingston, one of its users. The arbitration stemmed from a disagreement under Product Madness's Terms of Service (TOS), which included a confidentiality clause for arbitration proceedings. Product Madness prevailed in arbitration, resulting in the dismissal of Kingston's claims.

Following the arbitration, Product Madness sought to confirm the award in the Court of Chancery. The complaint filed by Product Madness included the arbitration award, the TOS, and Kingston's arbitration demand, initially submitted under seal by Court of Chancery Rule 5.1. However, when Product Madness later filed public versions of these documents, Kingston moved to keep them confidential, citing the confidentiality clause in the TOS.


Legal Arguments and Court's Considerations

Kingston argued that the confidentiality clause in the TOS should automatically render the arbitration documents sensitive and thus deserving of continued confidential treatment. Product Madness, however, challenged this notion, contending that Kingston's request was a strategic manoeuvre to shield information that could undermine future arbitration actions or potential class action suits.

Vice Chancellor Zurn emphasized the fundamental legal principle that court proceedings are presumptively open to the public. This principle supports the public’s ability to scrutinize and judge the workings of the judicial system, ensuring transparency, honesty, and respect for legal processes. Rule 5.1 reflects this commitment by mandating that information may only be kept confidential for good cause, balancing the need for public access against the potential harm from disclosing sensitive, non-public information.


The Ruling

The Court decisively rejected Kingston's argument that the TOS's confidentiality clause sufficed to meet the good cause standard under Rule 5.1. Vice Chancellor Zurn noted that arbitration proceedings are not inherently confidential and that parties cannot use private agreements to circumvent the public's right to access court records.

Kingston's additional arguments, including claims of public policy favouring confidentiality in uncontested arbitration confirmations and assertions of judicial estoppel, were also dismissed. The Court found no compelling reason to maintain confidentiality under Rule 5.1, reaffirming that contractual confidentiality does not override judicial transparency requirements.


Implications of the Decision

This ruling underscores the Delaware Court of Chancery's stance on maintaining transparency in judicial proceedings. It clarifies that while parties can agree to confidentiality in arbitration, such agreements do not bind the Court when it comes to public access to judicial records. The decision highlights the judiciary's role in upholding public trust and ensuring that legal processes remain open and accountable.



Vice Chancellor Zurn's decision in Product Madness, Inc. v. Brooke Kingston sends a clear message: confidentiality clauses in private agreements do not dictate the public accessibility of court proceedings. By denying Kingston's motion to keep the arbitration documents confidential, the Court reaffirmed its commitment to transparency, reinforcing the principle that most court filings should be accessible to the public unless there is a compelling reason to keep them sealed.

This case serves as a critical reminder of the balance between private contractual agreements and the public's right to an open judicial process, a cornerstone of democratic legal systems.

  • The court rejected the argument that a confidentiality clause in a contract automatically justified keeping documents sealed.
  • The decision reaffirms the principle that court filings are presumptively open to the public.
  • This ruling serves as a reminder that private agreements cannot override the public's right to access judicial records.

BY : Fanuel Rudi

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