Judge: CAA's Interest in Secrecy Doesn't Outweigh Public Access to Courts

The talent agency loses its bid to hush up a court fight with star football agent Ben Dogra.

A talent agency has learned the hard way that it can't keep all its secrets under wraps through arbitration agreements. On Thursday, a Missouri federal judge called CAA's concern that the media would spread word of a dispute with one of its former star agents "patently insufficient to justify overriding the strong presumption of public access" to court documents.

CAA has been battling Ben Dogra, who formerly oversaw the talent agency's football division, which represents J.J. Watt, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, among many others. In 2014, Dogra was fired under mysterious circumstances. CAA and Dogra would soon be in arbitration with each other over the divorce, with competing perspectives about who lived up — or didn't — to the terms of a very rich employment agreement.

Dogra emerged victorious on the point that he was fired without cause. CAA then took the dispute to a Missouri federal court, but lodged all of its papers arguing for the vacating of the arbitration award under seal.

CAA couldn't hush up the arbitrator's conclusions because Dogra, in response, filed counterclaims, opposed the sealing and put the arbitrator's opinions on the open docket.

Nevertheless, CAA continued to push for a sealing with the contention that everything that happened in arbitration was a secret and that the judge didn't have jurisdiction to determine the scope of confidentiality. Further, CAA slammed Dogra for lacking respect for the legal process.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh has come to the opposite conclusion, and what's more, delivers a big victory for open access to taxpayer-funded courts even when the matters at hand involve the outcomes of often buttoned-up arbitration.

Limbaugh addresses CAA's first argument that the confidentiality provision of the employment agreement required the parties' arbitration to be confidential. Dogra, interested in declaring to the world that CAA fired him without cause, countered that the confidentiality provision only applied to the arbitration itself, not to subsequent court filings seeking to either confirm or vacate the arbitration award.

"It is a stretch to say the requirement of confidentiality for the arbitration also extends to a review of that arbitration by a court of law," writes the judge. "The Court is inclined to adopt Dogra’s narrower reading of the agreement that does not rely on implication and words not spoken."

But forget what the contract said about the confidentiality of the arbitration because Limbaugh also stands up for the presumption of public access to litigation. The judge notes that there will sometimes be exceptions — e.g., shielding victims' identities, protecting trade secrets, securing national security — but adds that it can't simply be to honor the parties' underlying confidentiality agreement. A court isn't bound by such a deal.

Lastly, the decision (read here) faults CAA for lacking explanation for why its interest in secrecy outweighs the public's competing interest in judicial access and says CAA's seeming concern for avoiding media exposure just doesn't suffice.

This ruling, among others, should be fair warning to all those considering arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism that there may always be the prospect of word getting out.