Privacy vs. the Public Interest: Court Records in Brian France Divorce

Posted on Jan 27, 2013

It’s no great secret that NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France is involved in an acrimonious legal battle with his former wife, Megan France. Make that double ex-wife; Brian France has married and divorced Megan France twice.

The latest round of the conflict relates to the couple’s 2008 divorce. Both sides have asked the courts to keep the details of the divorce decree confidential. Information released in open court indicates that the separation agreement includes a $9 million lump-sum payment to Megan France, $10,000 a month in child support for the couple’s two children, and alimony of $32,000 a month for ten years.

Brian France has charged that Megan violated the confidentiality agreement in that settlement, potentially making it void.

Although the trial judge who presided over the divorce permitted the records to be sealed, in 2011 an appeals court held that the public interest outweighed France’s privacy. In line with that decision, Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Jena Culler ordered the 2008 divorce records unsealed. Before reporters could examine those documents, France’s attorney appealed the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The appeal froze any release of information from the 2008 records.

Now the Court of Appeals has spoken. In a unanimous decision, the three-member panel reaffirmed Judge Culler’s order unsealing the records. In the decision, the appeals court said it saw no “abuse in discretion” in Culler’s order.

Because the decision was unanimous, Brian France does not have an automatic right to appeal this case to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

It is conventional practice in most North Carolina counties for divorce records to be open to public inspection. However, state law also allows a judge to seal records in well-publicized divorces and child custody disputes. Among the state news media that have been pressing for release of these records are the Charlotte Observer and its television news partner, WCNC-TV.

Although Mr. France lives in Daytona Beach, Florida, his divorce from Megan France—who lives in Charlotte, NC—was finalized in Mecklenburg County.

Our Wilmington divorce attorneys sympathize with Mr. France. It can be embarrassing to have one’s personal financial information widely known. However, just as a legal contract of marriage must be public, we feel that divorce records should also be open to public inspection except in the most extraordinary circumstance, such as protecting the safety of children. This case does not rise to that level, so the public interest needs to be valued more highly than Mr. France’s privacy.

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R. Clarke Speaks
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Trial Lawyer and Founder of Speaks Law Firm, P.C.