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Judge Seals Some Docs in Starbucks Chair Dispute

(CN) - A federal judge agreed to seal documents containing proprietary information about a furniture company embroiled in a long-running dispute with Starbucks over allegedly defective chairs.

Kettler International Inc. sued Starbucks in the Norfolk, Va., Federal Court in May 2014, seeking a declaration that the chairs it has sold to the global coffee company since 2009 are well constructed and dependable.

The dispute between the two companies began on April 8, 2014, when Starbucks sent a letter to Kettler complaining that the "Carlo" chairs it purchased broke easily, and that it had been misled about their reliability.

Kettler's website describes the Carlo line of chairs as lightweight and compact, constructed of light metal mesh, and resistant to scratching, chipping and fading.

The company says that it was most disturbed by Starbucks' threat to rescind its purchase of all Carlo Chairs, and to seek as much as $1 million in damages in court.

In filing its complaint, Kettler said it was seeking to "vindicate its rights," and to have the court declare that its sale of the chairs to Starbucks was final and not based on any alleged misrepresentations.

On January 6, 2015, Senior U.S. District Judge Henry Morgan Jr. granted Kettler's request for additional discovery, and a second request to seal any documents created during that process that contain proprietary information about the company.

Kettler requested the additional discovery after learning that Starbucks had destroyed many of the chairs it claimed to be at the heart of the companies' dispute.

"Starbucks states in its Notice that it has 'taken steps to remove and replace the Carlo chairs from its stores,' and accordingly, the 'chairs are being collected and recycled,'" Kettler said, noting that the coffee purveyor said it would retain a "discrete sampling" of the Carlo chairs collected for furniture company's inspection.

"Thus, in the Notice, Starbucks claims that Kettler has provided Starbucks with defective products, yet Starbucks seeks to choose which Carlo Chairs Kettler can inspect, while destroying the Carlo Chairs Starbucks chooses to destroy," the plaintiff said.

Kettler filed a motion seeking to limit possible sanctions in a countersuit filed by Starbucks to be limited only to chairs that can actually be proven to be broken.

Its second motion sought to seal any documents that reveal the total number of Carlo chairs it sold to Starbucks over the last ten years, and the percentage of those chairs that have been returned over the same period.

It argued those numbers constitute confidential business information that is not normally subject to public disclosure.

Starbucks objected to the second motion on the grounds that less drastic alternatives exist to safeguard information that might be disclosed during the extended discovery, and that Kettler had failed to show the information was confidential and proprietary in any case.

"Starbucks ... has not provided any case law in support of its first argument that simply filing a brief without the redacted information constitutes a "less drastic alternative," Judge Morgan wrote. "Moreover, even if Starbucks is correct that the information is not necessary to decide on the Motion for Sanctions, Starbucks in its Opposition to the Motion for Sanctions discusses on numerous pages the number of claims concerning personal injuries stemming from alleged defects in the Carlo chair.

"Thus, Kettler was well within its right to introduce the total number of chairs in its reply brief, to place Starbucks' claim in context. Accordingly, simply filing a brief without the information is not a less drastic alternative," he wrote, adding, "Considering Defendant's second argument, Kettler has shown that the information sought to be sealed is normally not subject to public disclosure."

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