It is generally understood that court records in matrimonial and family court matters are confidential and unavailable to anyone other than the litigants themselves and their attorneys. The relevant laws governing confidentiality are Domestic Relations Law §235 (“DRL §235”) and Family Court Act §166 (“FCA §166”).
DRL §235, reads, in pertinent part, as follows:
“An officer of the court with whom proceedings in a matrimonial action or a written agreement of separation or an action or proceeding for custody, visitation or maintenance of a child are filed……….shall not permit a copy of any of the pleadings, affidavits, findings of fact, conclusions of law, judgment of dissolution, written agreement of separation or memorandum thereof, or testimony, or any examination or perusal thereof, to be taken by any other person than a party, or the attorney or counsel of a party, except by order of the court.”
FCA §166 provides for the following:
“The records of any proceeding in the family court shall not be open to indiscriminate public inspection. However, the court in its discretion in any case may permit the inspection of any papers or records.”
It has been noted that the purpose of these laws is to protect the privacy of the parties and prevent public dissemination of information relating to family problems. However, each law provides some authority for courts to unseal these confidential records at its discretion, as discussed below.
Unsealing records to defend a claim
In defense of a claim for injuries
In a case entitled Janecka v. Casey, the deceased’s estranged husband brought a wrongful death action against the doctors and the hospital whose alleged malpractice had caused his wife’s death. The deceased wife had committed suicide while hospitalized. The basis of the death claim was that the substandard treatment rendered by the medical professionals was the cause of death. Prior to her death, the husband had commenced a divorce action against the wife.
The doctors and hospital sought the name and address of the husband’s divorce attorney, the case number in the divorce lawsuit, and copies of certain legal documents in that proceeding. The husband opposed this request. The trial court granted the husband’s motion to the extent of denying the request for copies of legal documents but allowed for the production of the other information sought. An appeal followed.
In ruling in favor of the medical professionals the appellate court, opined that, by claiming economic loss in the death proceeding, the husband had “invited scrutiny into his marriage.” Given the relevancy of the relationship between the spouses and the economic damages asserted, the shield of privacy gave way to need for disclosure of relevant evidence.
The amount of time lapse between the family-related litigation and the pending proceeding must also be considered in assessing a request for unsealing of records pursuant to DRL §235. In Harvey v. Mazal American Partners, a man (the plaintiff) sustained serious personal injuries as a result of an incident at a construction site. A suit for injuries was commenced by the plaintiff and an additional claim was made by his wife for loss of companionship and services. The defendants (parties against whom the suit was brought) sought production of the file from the divorce case, asserting a right to same based upon the wife’s claim for losses which she was caused to suffer due to her husband’s injuries. The husband and wife opposed the request for release of their divorce records, arguing that the matrimonial proceeding was of short duration and had been long since discontinued. This couple ultimately prevailed. The defendants had failed to connect the marital claims to those made in the injury action. Since there was no showing that the husband and wife were living apart at the time the injuries were sustained there was insufficient evidence to overcome the protections afforded by DRL §235.
Another wrongful death action, entitled Harris v. The City of Buffalo, evolved from the killing of an individual by a city police officer. The plaintiff, a woman alleged to be the mother of the deceased individual’s child, sued on behalf of the deceased and the child. Having learned that the plaintiff had been involved in a Family Court paternity proceeding, the city sought disclosure of documents contained in that file. The court allowed the city access to the Family Court file. The identity of the child’s father was relevant to the pending lawsuit and the plaintiff had waived any right to confidentiality by bringing the death related action.
In defense of a claim concerning personal property
Issues concerning the unsealing of matrimonial records has not been confined to injury actions. The right to obtain otherwise confidential information has also been an issue in cases involving disputed claims over property, including those claims raised in the case of Solomon v. Meyer. Here, the defendants allowed the plaintiff to store property in their home while the latter was involved in a divorce proceeding. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants had failed to return all of the items he had stored in their home and that he was entitled to damages based upon the value of the missing items. The defendants sought release of the plaintiff’s divorce file. The plaintiff claimed that such records were sealed and off limits pursuant to DRL §235. In affirming the trial court’s order, the appellate court ruled that the plaintiff’s matrimonial records, must be subjected to an initial review by the court. Such a review was appropriate as the matrimonial file might provide relevant information as to what personal property was owned by the plaintiff and potentially wrongfully not returned by the defendants.
Unsealing records to aid in the prosecution of a claim
In the prosecution of a wrongful death claim
The demand for unsealing of confidential records has also been used in an offensive fashion. This strategy was employed in a case entitled Chow v. Boonyam. This matter concerned a wrongful death claim by parents of a child killed by the defendant’s son. The plaintiff-parents alleged that the defendant-parents had negligently entrusted a dangerous weapon to their son. The criminal prosecution of the defendant’s son, then a minor, was handled as a juvenile delinquency proceeding in the Family Court. Following the conclusion of the juvenile delinquency proceeding the court’s file was sealed pursuant to FCA §166.
The plaintiffs in Chow applied for an order directing release of the Family Court file in the wrongful death proceeding. This request was denied resulting in an appeal. The appellate court reversed and directed that the Family Court records be released to the court handling the death claim for a review and potential release of relevant documentation. The appellate court’s rationale was that the Family Court’s records might shed light on the issue of the defendant-parents culpability, which information could not be obtained elsewhere.
Unsealing records for personal benefit
For therapeutic purposes
In another instance, access to a matrimonial file was approved where the applicant established a “unique personal need” for the information requested. In this case, known as K.R. v. Clerk of New York County, the applicant sought the unsealing of his parents’ divorce file to help him better understand his difficult childhood and as an aid to his ongoing therapy. The applicant alleged that certain facts had been told to him by his father about his mother. This information had tormented him for years and he questioned the veracity of the information provided to him. The court granted the application holding that the importance of the files to the applicant would override any privacy concerns involved.
As society becomes increasingly litigious, it would seem that matrimonial and Family Court litigants will continue to find themselves in scenarios containing overlapping legal issues. As such, it is helpful to appreciate the interplay between the confidentiality of family law matters and the need to obtain relevant information from sealed court files.