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Cosby Appeal of Unsealing of Documents Dismissed as Moot After the Associated Press Intervenes

On August 15, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit dismissed an appeal filed by comedian Bill Cosby challenging a district court order that unsealed thousands of discovery documents. The Third Circuit, agreeing with the intervenor in the case, The Associated Press (AP), held that this issue was moot because the documents were already disseminated to the public.    

Oneof Cosby's accusers filed suit in federal court in Pennsylvania in 2005, alleging that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her at his home. As part of the discovery process, the accuser's lawyer took Cosby's deposition. Some of the questions asked of Cosby related to his relationships with other women and whether he had ever given them Quaaludes prior to having sex with them. Cosby admitted that he in fact had given Quaaludes to women prior to sex, and had given and offered money to women for their silence.

The district court ordered the deposition documents sealed until further order of the court. The parties settled the case in 2006 and the sealing order remained in effect. In 2014, the AP requested the documents be unsealed, and the court ordered them unsealed within 60 days unless someone objected. Cosby did.

The documents were eventually unsealed by court order in July 2015, and the information immediately went on the internet and was reported worldwide. Though Cosby's lawyer sought a stay of the district court's order within 20 minutes, it was too late to prevent the widespread dissemination of the documents.

Cosby appealed the unsealing order, but the plaintiff in the lawsuit refused to participate in the appeal. The AP, however, stepped in as an intervenor and asked the Third Circuit to dismiss the case as moot because even if they agreed with Cosby, there was nothing they could do to "reseal" the information that was already on the internet.

The appellate court agreed with the AP that it was unable to provide Cosby with any relief, thereby mooting his appeal. Cosby had argued that resealing the documents would at least "slow their dissemination" and prevent their use in any future court proceeding, but the court disagreed.

"We and our sister circuits have held that such appeals seeking to restrain further dissemination of publicly disclosed information are moot," wrote the court. "In light of the extensive publicity surrounding Cosby's admissions, we are similarly without power to affect the dissemination of the unsealed documents' contents in any meaningful way."

The court noted that several news organization published articles about the documents within hours of the district court's order and that a Google search of "Bill Cosby deposition testimony" yielded 81,200 hits as of August 2016.

The court also declined to issue an "advisory opinion" which Cosby argued would "make clear" to the news media that they are not entitled to access any documents beyond which those that are already unsealed.

"The contents of the documents are a matter of public knowledge, and we cannot pretend that we could change that fact by ordering them resealed," the Third Circuit concluded. "We thus vacate the district court's order and dismiss this appeal as moot." See: Constand v. Cosby, The Associated Press, Intervenor, No. 15-2797 (3d Cir. 08/15/2016).