For Immediate Release: June 1, 1999
Consumer Fraud Suit Against Insurer Deleted From Federal Docket, Computers
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) moved to unseal a federal consumer fraud case against State Farm Mutual Insurance Company today that has essentially been erased from the public record. No docket sheet is available, the court's computers have no record of the case, and almost the entire file of the four-year-long case is under seal. A smattering of documents, however, confirms that the case exists.
"This is absolutely outrageous," said TLPJ Foundation President Joseph A. Power, Jr., of Chicago's Power, Rogers & Smith. "A lawsuit charging State Farm, one of the nation's largest insurers, with cheating its policyholders has basically been excised from the court records. State Farm's customers and the public have a right to know what State Farm is so eager to hide."
The lawsuit, Foltz v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, was filed in federal district court in Eugene, Oregon in 1994. According to the few documents available, Debbie Foltz charged State Farm, her automobile insurer, with hiring the California Institute of Medical Research and Technology, a utilization review company, to defraud her by conducting a sham review of her son's need for medical treatment. After nearly four years of litigation, the parties reached a confidential settlement. As part of the settlement, a federal court order was apparently entered sealing over 450 documents in the case file, wiping the docket sheet clean, and erasing the case from the court's computer system. It is virtually impossible for a member of the public to determine that the case existed, much less view the court record.
TLPJ learned of Foltz because, in 1998, the Supreme Court of Oregon issued a published opinion answering some state law questions that had arisen in the case. When TLPJ co-counsel Lawrence Baron and Matthew Whitman, of Portland, Oregon, attempted to view the Foltz case file at the federal courthouse, however, the court clerk found no case file in the court's computer system. Since Baron and Whitman knew the federal case number from the Oregon Supreme Court's opinion, they asked the clerk to search the computer by case number. Again, no case was found. After a physical search, the clerk turned up a few unsealed documents, but said that the remaining court records over 450 in total were sealed by the court and unavailable for public view.
"There is no valid reason for barring public access to these court records," said Baron. "We intend to do all we legally can to vindicate the public's right to know and prevent State Farm from hiding what it has done."
TLPJ formally moved to intervene and unseal the records today on behalf of three consumer advocacy groups: Consumer Action, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocacy and lobbying on behalf of consumers and individuals against corporate financial, insurance and telecommunications institutions; the Insurance Company Accountability Network of Texas Watch, which seeks to eliminate abusive and unfair practices within the insurance industry; and United Policyholders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on insurance issues and consumer rights, and to assisting policyholders in securing prompt and fair insurance settlements.
TLPJ's challenge in Foltz is part of Project ACCESS, its nationwide campaign against court secrecy. Through Project ACCESS, TLPJ helps victims oppose unduly restrictive protective orders, intervenes in specific cases to fight for the public's right to know, and educates the courts and the public about the problems posed by litigation in secret.
In addition to Baron and Whitman, TLPJ's legal team in this case includes Kathryn Clarke of Portland, who is also The TLPJ Foundation's Oregon State Coordinator, and TLPJ Staff Attorney Sarah Posner.