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Fifth Circuit rules IPSO must open settlement with White family

Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office
Posted at 2:54 PM, Mar 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-29 15:57:44-04

An appeals court has ordered the settlement between the Iberia Parish Sheriff and the family of a man who died in custody be unsealed.

KATC and The Advocate together sued the sheriff over the settlement with the family of Victor White III. White died from a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back of an Iberia Parish Sheriff car. His death sparked controversy over the official line that he died from suicide.

In September 2018, Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna said in a 23-page ruling that “the minor child’s privacy interest outweighs the public’s right to know the amount paid to settle the case.”

But the media outlets appealed, and last week the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in their favor.

"The district court abused its discretion in denying Appellants’ motion for vacatur by relying on erroneous conclusions of law and misapplying the law to the facts. See Allen, 813 F.3d at 572. Accordingly, we REVERSE and VACATE the sealing orders in their entirety," the appeals court ruled.

To read the full ruling, scroll down.

The case stems from a wrongful death suit filed by the young child of White against the Sheriff. The suit was settled, but the settlement was sealed. KATC and The Advocate filed suit to open the settlement, arguing that the public had a right to know how much the settlement was.

When the media outlets intervened in the case, only the White family opposed releasing the amount of the settlement, court records show. The argument was made that releasing the amount would disrupt the family's life.

The court's ruling indicated the judge felt that was more important than the public's right to know the amount of the settlement. The appeals court said that was a mistake.

"Fourth, and finally, the district court weighed in favor of disclosure “the media’s interest in releasing a sensational story regarding the amount of money paid to resolve the lawsuit without knowing anything about how the decisions were ultimately reached in the parties’ settlement negotiations.” This statement of the factor does not adequately address Appellants’ interest in this case," the appeals ruling states. "While the facts of this case may be “sensational,” the media’s interest in judicial records and proceedings is generally more important than the district court’s characterization would imply."

But even if it were true, the court has no business evaluating someone's motive in obtaining information in a court record, especially since the media has no greater right to access than any normal citizen, the court wrote.

Here's the ruling: