NASCAR CEO France Fights To Keep Divorce Private
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The head of the closely held company that stages NASCAR races is fighting to keep the public out of hearings and documents related to a battle with his ex-wife over their high-dollar divorce settlement.
Tuesday’s oral arguments before the state Court of Appeals mark the second time the court has heard NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France’s plea to close court proceedings that are generally open to the public.
The court previously ruled that the public’s right to open court proceedings outweighed France’s interest in keeping the litigation secret.
After that appeals court ruling, a Mecklenburg County judge decided to reverse a peer judge and open court documents and hearings to the public. France is challenging that judge’s decision, asserting that one trial judge had no right to overturn another’s decision.
“That’s so we don’t have judicial anarchy,” France attorney John Stephenson Jr. told the three-judge court panel.
Brian France attended Tuesday’s court hearing and declined comment.
France’s request for secrecy involves a dispute over whether the woman he married and divorced twice, Megan France, violated confidentiality and other provisions of the agreement they reached before divorcing in 2008.
Brian France’s attorney had said in open court that the separation agreement included paying his ex-wife $9 million, alimony of $32,000 a month for 10 years and $10,000 a month in child support, according to a court filing by Megan France’s lawyers.
But five months after the divorce was final, Brian France returned to court to try enforcing the agreement’s confidentiality provisions. He asked a judge to decide “he was entitled to a sealed court file not only in that matter but in all future civil actions related to the agreement,” according to attorneys for The Charlotte Observer and WCNC-TV, which challenged the secrecy.
“The legal implications for the citizens of our state are staggering should Mr. France’s position be adopted. Contractual confidentiality between parties affects their legal obligations alone and therefore cannot extend to bind others,” the media companies’ attorney, Raymond Owens, wrote in a court filing.
Owens did not appear in court Tuesday and no one argued the media companies’ position to the judicial panel. Owens did not respond to telephone and email messages, and a spokesman for the newspaper said he didn’t know what happened. Spokesmen for the TV station did not return telephone and email messages.
Megan France did not take either side in the case but asked the judges to rule soon “so that she can move on with her life,” said her attorney, Loretta Biggs.
North Carolina law treats most divorces as records open to public inspection, said Wake Forest University law professor Suzanne Reynolds, an authority on family and divorce law. The same is true for hearings, where the parties argue their positions to a judge. High-profile divorces and child custody disputes can be sealed at the discretion of a judge, Reynolds said.
In celebrity hotbeds California and New York, courts can handle child custody disputes through sealed proceedings. As the recent breakup of actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes showed, detailed divorce and custody arrangements are rarely filed publicly in those states. But celebrity disputes can become public, as the battle between model Christie Brinkley and her former husband Peter Cook did. The pair fought in court over custody and property in New York in 2008, reaching a settlement after days of testimony about Cook’s affair with an 18-year-old woman.
Brian France, who lives near NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., tried to keep another legal proceeding from becoming public last year when he filed a federal lawsuit against his ex-wife. He accused Charlotte resident Megan France of illegally taping several of their phone calls. Brian France asked to seal the record in the federal lawsuit, but later dropped the case.
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