CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The N.C. Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a Mecklenburg judge’s order unsealing the secret documents in NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s legal battle with his former wife.
The appeals court ruling is the latest twist in Brian and Megan France’s efforts to keep secret the details of their legal wrangling and the contents of their separation agreement.
Brian France has sought to scrap the agreement with his ex-wife that calls for him to pay the mother of his two children millions of dollars as well as more than $40,000 a month in alimony and child support. The NASCAR chairman claims Megan France breached their confidential separation agreement.
Brian and Megan France also had sought to have the court hearings closed to the public.
The appeals court ruling Monday upholds Mecklenburg District Judge Jena Culler’s ruling in August 2011 unsealing the documents in the Frances’ litigation. Culler also overturned an order by a former judge sealing the documents in 2008.
“The public has a right to access court files,” Culler announced in court. “I feel very strongly that these files should be unsealed.”
The appeals court said it found no “abuse in discretion” in Culler’s order.
Culler, in ordering the documents be unsealed, found that there had been substantial changes in the circumstances surrounding the litigation between Brian and Megan France. One of the changes the judge cited was that the media had published details about the confidential separation agreement. Another occurred when Culler ordered that the case proceed in an open courtroom.
At a hearing in July 2011, Ray Owens, an attorney for the Observer and its news partner, WCNC-TV, urged Culler to unseal the documents. “It’s time for openness,” he argued.
But Johnny Stephenson, one of Brian France’s attorneys, argued that then-District Judge Todd Owens’ order in 2008 to seal the documents had not been overturned and was still in effect. “The order is the law of this case,” he told the judge. “And we have to abide by it.”
Culler, in ordering the documents unsealed, said disclosures about the separation agreement warranted the unsealing of the documents. The judge also pointed out the difficulties of holding hearings in open court about documents that are under seal and issues that are confidential.
“This is simply not how our courts are supposed to run,” Culler said.