Court determines that settlement agreement concerning drilling activities is public record

On March 20, 2013, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge Debbie O’Dell-Seneca ordered that a settlement agreement entered in a case complaining of drilling activities be unsealed and made available to the public. The Court found that there is “a presumption of openness under the common-law rule of access to the courts” and there is “no business-entity right of privacy within the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to prevent the operation of that rule.” View this 32-page Opinion and Order

On May 27, 2010, by Praecipe to Issue Writ of Summons, the Hallowich family initiated an action against several oil and gas companies and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, alleging that the companies’ drilling activities interfered with their enjoyment of their property rights and violated the state’s environmental laws. They complained that their water was polluted by the wells, pipelines, processing operations and truck traffic that came into the rural area where they built their home. Before filing a complaint, the Hallowiches settled the dispute on July 11, 2011. With minor children involved, as required by state law, the Hallowiches filed a Petition for Approval of Settlement of Minors. A hearing was held on August 23, 2011, at which time the Court approved the settlement and the record was sealed. Immediately thereafter, two Pittsburgh newspapers sought to unseal the record. The newspapers’ initial petition to unseal the record was denied. On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case. Back in the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, briefs were filed and an evidentiary hearing held. The oil and gas companies argued that they had the right to negotiate a mutual confidentiality agreement under the privacy protections of the Commonwealth’s constitution. The Judge concluded that the companies’ privacy rights were trumped by the press and public’s right of access to the record. “Confidentiality runs only between defendants and the Hallowiches. Thus, the unsealing of this record leaves these obligations wholly intact, because the parties remain just as gagged from speaking of the terms and conditions of the settlement as they were prior to the unsealing.” A page from the unsealed settlement agreement shows that the Hallowiches were paid $750,000. See Secrecy Lifted in Fracking Case.

This post was prepared by Barclay Nicholson ( or 713 651 3662) fromFulbright's Energy Practice.