Lawsuits and Party Anonymity

In general, lawsuits involve harmed parties and controversial facts. However, in some cases, the facts are especially sensitive, posing serious detrimental consequences for one or more parties. This threat exists regardless of how the court decides the case. These cases include matters involving, among others, child victims, sexual abuse, and hate crimes. To help protect privacy interests, courts will sometimes allow a party to appear anonymously under a pseudonym–for example, John Doe or Jane Doe.

What Is the Basis of A Party’s Right to Anonymity in Court Proceedings?

According to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a), parties to a lawsuit are required to include their names in their court filings. To determine whether the option to file anonymously is appropriate, courts will balance the related competing interests between the parties. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals first introduced this test in Doe v. Stegall, a case involving prayer in public schools. The court explained that the issue of party anonymity required a balancing of interests in full disclosure against the party’s right to privacy. The courts apply this test on a case-by-case basis. Although, there are no firm factors to help guide this analysis, a review of the different policy interests will help reach a conclusion. However, allowing a party to file a case anonymously violates two fundamental principles of the judicial process. First, an accused party has a constitutional right to confront the accuser. This is a principle contained in the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to face and question an accuser. Second, central to the American judicial system is the right of the public to have access to court documents. Where parties remain anonymous, the public is deprived of its right to access court documents.

How Have Courts Applied the Stegall Balancing Test In Recent Cases?

In Doe v. Lally, the District Court of Maryland explained that anonymity is almost always appropriate where a party is facing threat of physical harm. In Does I Thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corporation, the Ninth Circuit allowed garment workers to anonymously file an action against their employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The workers argued that if they revealed their identities in the case they would lose their jobs and face deportation, arrests, and imprisonment. The court held that where parties demonstrate that they have “objectively reasonable fear of extraordinarily severe retaliation” anonymity is appropriate. Similarly, in Roe v. Aware Woman Center for Choice, the Eleventh Circuit held that cases dealing with abortion carried a presumption that anonymity was appropriate. The court explained that anonymity was warranted given the intimate and delicate sets of facts. While most courts are sensitive to facts that allow for anonymity, in some instances courts will strictly apply Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a), and require parties to identify themselves in their pleadings.

At our law firm, we provide guidance and legal expertise to manage and protect your privacy. If you are involved in a matter dealing with delicate and private circumstances, you may contact us to discuss the options.