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Camoin v Nelnet (United States ex rel. Oberg v. Nelnet)

In 2007, Jon Oberg filed a False Claims Act case against multiple defendants engaged in the business of providing and servicing student loans, alleging that the defendants fraudulently manipulated their loan portfolios to obtain increased federal subsidies. In 2010, several defendants filed motions for summary judgment, which Mr. Oberg opposed. The summary judgment papers attached several exhibits that had been produced in discovery subject to a protective order; those exhibits were filed under seal. The court set a deadline for any party seeking to keep the exhibits under seal to file a memorandum supporting that position, but, before that date, those parties entered into a settlement with Mr. Oberg and did not file the memorandum.

In 2023, documentarian Michael Camoin filed a pro se request for access to sealed summary-judgment documents. Two of the entities that had been defendants in the case – Nelnet and Brazos – filed an opposition to Mr. Camoin’s request. Public Citizen then stepped in to represent Mr. Camoin, filing a supplemental memorandum to explain that the public has a right under the First Amendment and common law to access judicial records absent a judicial finding that sealing was warranted, and that no such finding had occurred with respect to the requested documents. On July 3, 2023, however, the court held that the pubic right of access did not attach to the records because the court had not ruled on the summary judgment motions. We appealed the court’s decision to the Fourth Circuit. Our brief argues that the First Amendment and common law rights of access attached to summary judgment material as of the time they are filed with a court, and that the materials did not lose their status as judicial records open to public inspection when the parties settled.

In June 2024, the Fourth Circuit ruled in our favor, agreeing that the public has a presumptive First Circuit Amendment right to access sealed summary-judgment materials and that the right did not depend on whether the trial court issued a summary judgment decision. The court then remanded for consideration of whether sealing was warranted under the appropriate standard.