A legal battle that continues to wind its way through our courts will test the strength of our First Amendment rights protecting the public’s access to information. The case involves an ongoing legal dispute between title insurance company Amrock (formerly Title Source) and real estate valuations firm HouseCanary. The Houston Forward Times joined with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to file a brief in support of ensuring open access to court information.
In 2018, HouseCanary accused Amrock of misappropriating purported trade secrets related to an automated valuation model (AVM). The original trial concluded with HouseCanary being awarded $706 million, the largest in the history of Bexar County. This past summer, however, the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio unanimously overturned that decision, citing HouseCanary’s flawed jury instructions and erroneous directions that called for the consideration of invalid legal theories and unsubstantiated claims of critical influence over the March 2018 verdict.
Back in 2018, near the conclusion of the original trial, HouseCanary asked the trial court to seal exhibits retroactively, following their public sharing, which the court did. Notably, HouseCanary only requested the sealing after it was pointed out that they had willingly submitted, addressed, and discussed information they claimed to be “trade secrets” in open court. This initially resulted in 14 trial exhibits being sealed six weeks after the trial had ended. In July of 2019, the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio held that because the company failed to follow the proper document sealing procedures as laid out in Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 76a, the documents must be unsealed. HouseCanary is now appealing that decision to the Texas Supreme Court. The Court has indicated that it will hear oral arguments – virtually – on October 27, 2020.
It has been a long-standing principle in court that such documents shall remain available for the public and it is an important standard for upholding legal accountability. The public deserves to understand the facts of the case, which led to such massive damages which may ultimately shape the very definition of what is, or is not, deemed legally worthy of trade secret protection.
The Houston Forward Times is keenly aware of the threats posed through the indiscriminately issuing sealing motions and the stakes for protecting freedom of speech and public access to information. The First Amendment serves as a cornerstone of liberty, and it must be protected with vigilance. When exceptions may be warranted, they must be weighed with prudence. As such, the Houston Forward Times, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and all those in support of the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, turn to the Texas Supreme Court and anxiously await its ultimate decision in this critical case.