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Rights to Privacy and Protection of Your Records

Although there is a well-recognized right of public access to judicial records based upon the First Amendment to the Constitution, the common-law right to access doctrine and the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, the Superior Court has indicated that this right is not absolute. The Court reasoned that because divorce hearings are essentially private in nature and the details of such proceedings may not serve any useful public purpose, such hearings may be closed to protect the rights of the parties. It is within the discretion of the trial court and may occur if the disclosure will cause a serious injury to the party seeking that their record be sealed. It is not enough that you will be humiliated. Pennsylvania has passed a broader Right to Know Law which was signed by Gov. Rendell on Feb. 15 2008. Although the law was intended to improve the public's access to government records, and is mostly effective Jan. 1, 2009, there are certain records that are exempt from disclosure including records that would: result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to or the personal security of an individual; endanger the public safety; disclose an individual's medical, psychiatric or psychological history or disability status; reveal an individual's personal identification information including a person's Social Security number, driver's license number, personal financial information, home, cellular or personal telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, employee number or other confidential personal identification numbers, spouse's name, marital status and beneficiary or dependent information, a record that constitutes or reveals a trade secret or confidential propriety information, personal email addresses, eligibility for social services, home address or date of birth of a child 17 years of age or younger and DNA or RNA records.

  • Make certain that you tell your lawyer not to file any documents such as tax returns, bank records, or retirement account statements. If the court needs these documents to rule on your case ensure that sensitive personal or identifying financial information such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, retirement account numbers and credit card account numbers are redacted with notation.
  • Never file medical or psychological reports unless you have marked them as exempt from disclosure under the Right-To-Know Law.
  • Do not file your property settlement agreement unless you have redacted personal identifying information such as that listed above.
  • Refer to account numbers in pre-trial, settlement statements, briefs and agreements with X's in place of numbers, except for the last three or four digits, so that the parties and the master or judge may identify the account;
  • Do not include Social Security numbers in captions or other pleadings filed with the Court, including Qualified Domestic Relations Orders. For an order to "qualify" the plan must have the SSN for both the participant and alternate payee. You may be able to submit the SSN "outside the order" by prior arrangement with the plan administrator. Bank or investment companies may provide a separate form, not to be filed with the order, but not to be transmitted to the plan with the certified court order on which the SSN's are omitted.
  • Try to get an agreement from opposing counsel to seal the record. But don't count on this as a tried and true win. I have encountered judges who refuse to sign the consent order. However, if you believe that your pleadings must be protected for any of the above reasons, don't be afraid to have your attorney appear with opposing counsel to argue to the judge to reconsider her decision. She might be convinced if you show as a team to request the protection.