King & Spalding LLP may withdraw its attorneys’ fees request connected to winning a FOIA case against the government, but a federal judge in Washington declined to destroy the underlying exhibits supporting the request.
Federal court dockets are a part of the government’s overall records system, so the court won’t destroy or return any of the documents the firm filed under seal, Judge Amit P. Mehta said on Tuesday for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The firm was effectively asking the court to “turn back the clock” and treat the sealed exhibits as though they had never been placed on the docket, the court said.
King & Spalding won on the merits of its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services in 2018. The court agreed that the government improperly invoked FOIA’s confidentiality exemption when it responded to a records request related to an investigation into Ambiomed Inc., one of the firm’s clients.
The firm then asked to be awarded the fees’ and costs it had sunk into the litigation, but sought to keep its billing rates, hours worked, and staffing strategies private, citing potential competitive harm. The court ruled earlier this month that hypothetical competitive harm didn’t outweigh the public’s interest in “a fee demand made against the public fisc” and that if it wanted to proceed with its fees request, the exhibits would have to be viewable by the public.
King & Spalding chose to withdraw the motion for attorneys’ fees rather than unseal the documents.
The destruction request seemed to be “premised on little more than its mistrust” that the government wouldn’t hold onto the records, the court said. “But that is not a sufficient reason” to grant its request since King & Spalding hadn’t alleged that abuse, oppression, or injustice would otherwise result.
The court also won’t order the government to return or destroy its own service copies of the sealed materials, it said Tuesday.
The case is King & Spalding LLP v. HHS, D.D.C., No. 16-cv-01616, 4/21/20.