Judge: Unseal county settlement
A federal judge has issued an order unsealing the details of a settlement agreement between Northumberland County and a former chief clerk who was fired in 2011.
U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann wrote in Tuesday's order that the public's interest in the information is "a particularly compelling consideration" when a settlement involves a public entity or official.
"Given the strong presumption in favor of openness, the fact that this case involves a governmental entity, and that the seal would prevent disclosure of this information under a relevant freedom of information law, the seal should not continue and shall be vacated," Brann wrote.
The News-Item filed a motion to intervene on Aug. 16 seeking details of a settlement between Kymberley Best, the former chief clerk and assistant county solicitor, and the county, Commissioner Vinny Clausi and former Commissioner Merle Phillips.
Brann's ruling overturns a prior court order on June 5 to approve a joint motion of all parties involved in the settlement to seal the details from public disclosure.
However, the settlement agreement is not a "judicial record." If it were, Brann wrote that the court would have made it available. Instead, it must be sought through "other legal channels," such as a formal request through the state's Right-to-Know law.
Mike Cosgrove, an attorney representing The News-Item in the court action, said the newspaper would pursue the settlement agreement through an open records request to the county.
Best was fired from her $70,000-a-year job on March 18, 2011. Two months later, she filed suit against the county, Clausi and Phillips, claiming wrongful termination and defamation. She followed with a pair of amended complaints, with some claims in the first amendment dismissed by a federal judge in August 2012.
Clausi and Phillips had also filed motions requesting the suit be dismissed, citing immunity as public officials.
The case was settled with a mediator on April 2. It was reached with the county's insurance provider. The county's cost was a flat $25,000 deductible to the agency after the suit was filed.
When The News-Item filed a RTK request for the settlement, the county denied it and cited that a federal judge had ordered it sealed.