NASCAR CEO France fights to keep divorce private

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 25, 2012

RALEIGH (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.
Today’s oral arguments before the state Court of Appeals mark the second time the court has heard NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France’s reasons to close court proceedings generally open to the public.
France’s search 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, plus $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 their agreement’s confidentiality provisions by asking 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.
Brian France’s attorneys argue that letting the public peak into his divorce case imperils his “constitutionally-protected right to a contract, right to a remedy in the trial court for an injury done to him, and right to privacy. The preservation of these constitutional rights is fundamental to the fair administration of justice and of paramount public interest.”
North Carolina law treats most divorces as records open to public inspection, said Wake Forest University law professor Susan Reynolds, an authority on family and divorce law. The same is true for hearings, where the sides argue their positions to a judge. High-profile divorces and child custody disputes can be sealed at the discretion of a judge, Reynolds said.
“The allegations that there was a confidentiality agreement that’s at issue might make a judge more inclined to close the hearings until the judge could figure out the merits of that claim,” Reynolds said. “Certainly, if a term of the agreement was that both parties would keep it confidential you would expect that the judge might close the hearings temporarily until they could assess the validity of his claim.”
Courts in celebrity hotbeds of California and New York can handle child custody disputes through sealed proceedings, and 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. 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.