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Suing Under a Pseudonym

In most situations, litigants must sue and be sued using their real names, even in sensitive matters.  A recent ruling, however, catalogued circumstances under which a litigant may bring suit under a pseudonym. 

 

In Doe v. Standard Ins. Co., 2015 WL 5778566 (D. Maine October 2, 2015), the court stated the general rule, but then cited the exception:

A plaintiff should be permitted to proceed anonymously in cases where a substantial privacy interest is involved. The most compelling situations involve matters which are highly sensitive, such as social stigmatization, real danger of physical harm, or where the injury litigated against would occur as a result of the disclosure of the plaintiff's identity.

Doe v. Rostker, 89 F.R.D. 158, 161 - 62 (N.D.Cal.1981).

 

The court explained that allowing claimants to sue under a pseudonym "prevent[s] the stigmatization of litigants with mental illness." The court also expressed concern that persons with mental illness might be deterred from bringing their legitimate disputes to court out of "fear of repercussions that would ensue if their condition was made public." (citing Doe v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co., 237 F.R.D. 545, 550 (D.N.J.2006)).

 

In the opinion, the court also usefully laid out the factors courts consider when deciding on whether to permit a litigant to file suit under a pseudonym.  In favor are the following factors:

 

The factors which support the use of pseudonymous litigation are as follows: (1) the extent to which the identity of the litigant has been kept confidential; (2) the bases upon which disclosure is feared or sought to be avoided, and the substantiality of these bases; (3) the magnitude of the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the litigant's identity; (4) whether, because of the purely legal nature of the issues presented or otherwise, there is an atypically weak public interest in knowing the litigant's identities; (5) the undesirability of an outcome adverse to the pseudonymous party and attributable to his refusal to pursue the case at the price of being publicly identified; and (6) whether the party seeking to sue pseudonymously has illegitimate ulterior motives.

Arguments against allowing pseudonyms include:

(1) the universal level of public interest in access to the identities of litigants; (2) whether, because of the subject matter of this litigation, the status of the litigant as a public figure, or otherwise, there is a particularly strong interest in knowing the litigant's identities, beyond the public's interest which is normally obtained; and (3) whether the opposition to pseudonym by counsel, the public, or the press is illegitimately motivated.

176 F.R.D. at 467-68 (citation omitted).

Other cases on this issue include: Doe v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield United of Wis., 112 F.3d 869, 872 (7th Cir.1997); Doe v. Colautti, 592 F.2d 704, 705 (3d Cir.1979); Doe v. Harris, 495 F.Supp. 1161 (S.D.N.Y.1980); Doe v. Gallinot, 486 F.Supp. 983 (C.D.Cal.1979); Doe v. New York Univ., 442 F.Supp. 522 (S.D.N.Y.1978)).

 

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