U.S. District Court Judge P.K. Holmes III granted the New England Patriots a pretrial discovery victory on Tuesday by agreeing to keep emails between head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft sealed as part of a protective order. The emails concern former assistant coach Bret Bielema, who is head coach of Illinois and the plaintiff in a $7 million lawsuit against the Razorback Foundation.
While the Patriots aren’t a party to the litigation, the Foundation asserts that Belichick-Kraft emails could help their theory that Bielema, Belichick and agent Neil Cornrich illegally conspired to ensure the Patriots underpaid Bielema. Under this theory, the Foundation, which owed Bielema on his buyout following his firing as Razorbacks head coach, would be responsible to pay the difference between what the Patriots paid and the Foundation’s obligations. Attorneys for Bielema and the Patriots reject this possibility as untrue and illogical.
In a brief to Judge Holmes, the Patriots maintained that disclosure of the emails would reveal confidential trade secrets, potentially including salary information, financial strategies and football-related concerns (playbooks, reports on NFL draft-eligible players, game tape, etc…). In federal litigation, court filings are often made publicly available to the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service. To prevent such disclosure, parties need to convince judges to keep materials sealed.
In his order, Judge Holmes acknowledged that “some portions of the emails are clearly subject to the protective order, such as internal email addresses and business discussions about persons who appear entirely unrelated to this action.” Nonetheless, he wrote he is “not convinced that all of the information in the emails is as sensitive at the Patriots’ response argues.” He added he’s unsure if the Patriots proved they would suffer “competitive injuries” if the public—including rival NFL teams that would value Patriots information—read the emails. The judge also suggested that “redaction rather than full access restriction” would probably address the Patriots’ worries.
Despite those reservations, Judge Holmes agreed that “the emails in their entirety will remain subject to the protective order at this time.” He said he is “extending the Patriots the benefit of the doubt” for now but could revisit at later points.
Going forward, the Foundation will file a counterclaim and accompanying exhibits that will remain sealed. For those following the case out of Patriots-related curiosity, much of what they want to read will remain out of view for the time being.