A Broward circuit judge on Monday made public one of the more than 100 cases The Miami Herald has found hidden on a secret docket.
The case involved a business dispute involving a company owned by the wife of a prominent Miami-Dade prosecutor. Judge Robert Carney ordered the entire file unsealed, which effectively put it back on the public docket.
There "does not on its face appear to be anything that would require or authorize a sealing, " Carney said during a hearing.
The Miami Herald reported Sunday that 107 cases in Broward - including divorce, negligence and fraud suits - have been removed from the public records since 2001, violating the basic principle that America's justice system should be open to the taxpayers who fund it.
At least 18 judges were identified by the Broward clerk's office as having ordered the extreme secrecy. Judges interviewed for the story said they never intended for cases to disappear, only to seal sensitive information. But Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said his staff removes cases from the public docket when judges label them "confidential."
How the case unsealed by Carney on Monday ended up on a secret docket at all remains a mystery. It was never labeled confidential. Carney simply ordered the court file sealed following a request by attorneys for both sides.
The case was filed in August by Bi-County Speech Language Pathology, a Broward firm owned by Stephanie Gilfarb, the wife of Michael Gilfarb, a top prosecutor in the Miami-Dade state attorney's office.
Bi-County accused its former worker, Randi Weinstein, of breaching a non-compete agreement. Within a month and a half of the suit's filing, however, the parties resolved their differences out of court with the help of a rabbi. The case was dismissed, sealed and taken off the public docket.
The case file contained no reason for such secrecy. But at Monday's hearing, Michael Gilfarb said the request to seal the court file was made to protect his personal information.
"I'm an assistant state attorney, " he told Carney. "Information [in the file] could lead to discovery of my personal information, which we sought to keep private."
Exemptions in Florida's public records law shield personal information from the public, such as home addresses, telephone numbers and Social Security numbers of law enforcement officers, including prosecutors. It's open to debate whether the same law shields the same information in a court file, said Miami First Amendment attorney Tom Julin.
The file also contained papers in which defense attorney Peter Weinstein, Randi Weinstein's husband, formally asked Bi-County to admit or deny whether it had improperly billed "Medicare/Medicaid" for a party at which no actual speech therapy was given. Court papers say Weinstein withdrew the statements after they were "refuted" by Bi-County. And on Monday, Gilfarb, who ran unsuccessfully for a Broward judgeship in 2002, called the statements "lies."
Carney ordered the case opened after concluding none of Gilfarb's personal information was in it.
Afterward, Gilfarb said he never knew cases could be removed from the public docket and never made such a request. He said he only sought to have the case sealed.