Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Protective Orders Clarified

Canadian National Railway Company v. BNSF Railway Company 2020 FCA 45
Boivin JA: Gleason, Rivoalen JJA rev’g 2019 FC 281 Locke J

As discussed here, the law relating to protective orders has recently been in ferment. Traditionally, the court would grant protective orders essentially routinely, particularly on consent or when unopposed, but a series of decisions developed a more restrictive approach, and a split developed in the jurisprudence. In a short decision that will be required reading for all litigators, the FCA has now provided a definitive resolution, largely returning the law to the status quo ex ante, though with considerable clarification of the law. In brief, the FCA held that: the AB Hassle test applies to protective orders and the Sierra Club test applies to confidentiality orders; the two are distinct and the former is much less stringent; and there is no reason why protective orders should not be granted more or less routinely.

There are two key questions. First, what is the test for granting a protective order? A protective order governs the way parties designate and treat confidential information that they exchange between themselves in the pre-trial phase of the action, while a confidentiality order governs the filing of confidential documents and information on the court record. As noted by the FCA at [20], the test applicable to confidentiality orders is set out in Sierra Club 2002 SCC 41 at [53]. This is a relatively stringent test, which requires consideration of the open court principle, weighed together with the commercial interests of the parties in maintaining confidentiality of sensitive material. Protective orders were traditionally granted on the basis of the test set out in AB Hassle (1998) 83 CPR (3d) 428 (FCTD) aff’d [2000] 3 FC 360 (CA) [14]. This test is less stringent than the Sierra Club test, as it focuses on the confidential nature of the information at issue, without consideration of the open court principles.

Confusion had arisen because the Sierra Club decision referred to the AB Hassle decision in a way that was somewhat unclear, and some of the recent FC caselaw had held that the Sierra Club test applies to both types of orders, or that Sierra Club had modified the AB Hassle test. The FCA affirmed that the AB Hassle test and the Sierra Club test are indeed distinct. The former is applicable to protective orders [14] and the latter to confidentiality orders [19]. Sierra Club solely concerned confidentiality orders, and it did not in any way alter the AB Hassle test for protective orders [23].

The confusion arose because the first prong of the Sierra Club test refers to considerations of confidentiality, which are at the core of the AB Hassle test. The FCA explained that the SCC’s reference to AB Hassle was solely in the context of the first branch of the Sierra Club test:

[23] [Sierra Club] does not in any way extend the AB Hassle test, applicable to protective orders, to include a consideration of necessity, alternative measures, or the scope of the order to ensure that it is not overly broad. It follows that the necessity element of the Sierra Club test cannot be said to apply in the context of protective orders, notwithstanding the reference to the AB Hassle test. . . .

The reason for this is straightforward: the open court principle is not implicated by protective orders:

[25] [T]here is no justification for applying the same onerous Sierra Club test that is applied to confidentiality orders to protective orders. Confidentiality orders are squarely meant to circumvent the open court principle, while protective orders are instead used in instances where the open court principle is not engaged.

It was therefore an error of law in this case for the motions judge to conflate the AB Hassle test for protective orders with the more onerous Sierra Club test for a confidentiality order [26].

The second and distinct issue is whether protective orders should be granted more or less routinely, as was the traditional practice, or more sparingly, as some recent cases had held. The FCA clearly signaled that the traditional practice is appropriate (my formatting):

[31] Although the Federal Court is in no way obliged to grant a protective order, I am of the view that there has been no significant and compelling changes to the law that justify the refusal to grant a protective order on consent (or not) if
(i) the AB Hassle test is met and
(ii) the protective order submitted to the Federal Court is in accordance with the protective order template jointly developed over the years between the Intellectual Property Bar and the Federal Court.

[32] Protective orders undoubtedly remain pertinent and useful for intellectual property litigants and there is no justification, legal or otherwise, for stifling this long-standing practice.

The more restrictive approach was driven by concerns about wasted court resources in reviewing protective orders. The FCA remarked that to facilitate the Court’s review the parties should [31] (my formatting):

• provide sufficient evidence in support of their motion for a protective order.
• identify[] the portions of their draft protective order that have been added to the template or removed from it.

The Court also addressed hybrid orders, which contain provisions that govern both confidential information exchanged between parties during the discovery process and confidential information filed with the Court [8]:

[30] The test for granting a hybrid order, in the form I endorse below, remains the same as the test for granting a protective order. As noted, hybrid orders also address materials that might be filed with the Court with a confidential designation. As such, a party who wishes to have the Court treat documents subject to the hybrid order as confidential must bring a motion pursuant to Rule 151 of the Federal Courts Rules forthwith after filing the documents. It is at this juncture, when the Court is being asked to seal documents, that the Sierra Club test set out at paragraph 20, above, is engaged. The motion for a confidentiality order should not automatically be left for the trial judge to determine, but should be filed at the first opportunity.

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