It was "private to our family," Hagenah said. "What people in the public care about are the names. When they see a name they've heard before, such as Wrigley, they tend to care about it."
Follett Higher Education Group, a family-owned business started in 1873 and based in suburban Chicago, became embroiled in a contract dispute with BookRenter.com. BookRenter.com, launched in 2008, rents and sells college textbooks to students.
The two companies teamed up in March 2010 in a deal to sell books online, but, according to Follett, the relationship soured and Follett sued.
Follett asked for the case to be sealed because it contained confidential and proprietary information, said Follett spokesman Tom Kline. Hall agreed and sealed the case.
But Greg Wharton, vice president of legal affairs for Rafter Inc., formerly known as BookRenter.com, said his company wanted the dispute public.
"Follett is a major, major player in the book industry. … Perhaps they had the case sealed because they didn't want to make us seem sympathetic in this David versus Goliath battle," Wharton said. "We believe the market had a right to know about the dispute."
Scottie Pippen case
Of the 163 secret cases, judges had unsealed only 16 as of July, according to a Tribune analysis. One those cases involved former Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen.
In April 2004, Pippen took his financial adviser to court after he "experienced significant losses" in his investments. Pippen accused Robert Lunn of self-dealing; of placing his money into questionable, risky investments; and of failing to protect Pippen's assets, according to court records. (Lunn last year was indicted on unrelated federal charges that he defrauded a suburban bank and two of his clients of more than $3.2 million. The case is pending.)
Pippen's lawyer, Jerry Esrig, asked the court to seal the Pippen file. Esrig argued that the file contained extensive personal financial information about Pippen, and making it public could harm him financially.
Judge Bush agreed and sealed the file. She unsealed it in October 2004 after Pippen received an $11.8 million judgment against Lunn and his company. The next month, news stories disclosed Pippen's financial battle. What was not widely known at the time was that Pippen had his court case hidden from the public.
Esrig, in an interview, said it was easier to seal the entire file rather than risk having some of Pippen's personal financial information revealed. He said he would have done the same for any client, regardless of their celebrity.
Bush agreed that fame was not a factor.
"I did not seal it because he's a celebrity," Bush said. "He's not even my favorite basketball player. Michael (Jordan) was."
Judge Moshe Jacobius, the presiding judge of the Chancery Division, sealed two chancery cases in 2011, according to records. The identities of the parties involved in those disputes also are hidden from the public.
Chief Judge Evans, who approved the Tribune's request for court data on sealed files, said judges rarely seal cases but acknowledged that sometimes "a mistake could be made."
"I think that the overwhelming majority of our judges know the law and apply the law," he said. "But judges are human like anyone else."
Rathsack, the appellate lawyer, said the public cannot know if a case was properly sealed unless "it can see and read the reasons" that it should be secret.
"Even if no clout is involved in sealing the case, there's the appearance of impropriety," Rathsack said. "The appearance of impropriety is critical. It's critical to the courts because courts have to have the public's trust to properly function."
Tribune reporter Alex Richards contributed.
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