Tuesday, August 12, 2008

When can you sue under a pseudonym?

Under special circumstances, you can file a lawsuit anonymously. At least that's what other Court of Appeal have held over the years. That issue never came before the Second Circuit, which resolves the issue today.

The case is Sealed v. Sealed, decided on August 12. The plaintiff brought a lawsuit claiming she was sexually assaulted in violation of her civil rights. The district court dismissed the case for procedural reasons, including the plaintiff's failure to use her real name in the lawsuit. The Second Circuit reverses that dismissal and directs the district court to reconsider in light of the balancing test outlined below, taken from other court rulings around the country on the utility of pseudonyms in litigation:

We note with approval the following factors, with the caution that this list is non-exhaustive and district courts should take into account other factors relevant to the particular case under consideration: (1) whether the litigation involves matters that are “highly sensitive and [of a] personal nature”; (2) “whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the . . . party [seeking to proceed anonymously] or even more critically, to innocent non-parties”; (3) whether identification presents other harms and the likely severity of those harms, including whether “the injury litigated against would be incurred as a result of the disclosure of the plaintiff’s identity”; (4) whether the plaintiff is particularly vulnerable to the possible harms of disclosure, particularly in light of his age; (5) whether the suit is challenging the actions of the government or that of private parties; (6) whether the defendant is prejudiced by allowing the plaintiff to press his claims anonymously, whether the nature of that prejudice (if any) differs at any particular stage of the litigation, and whether any prejudice can be mitigated by the district court; (7) whether the plaintiff’s identity has thus far been kept confidential; (8) whether the public’s interest in the litigation is furthered by requiring the plaintiff to disclose his identity; (9) “whether, because of the purely legal nature of the issues presented or otherwise, there is an atypically weak public interest in knowing the litigants’ identities”; and (10) whether there are any alternative mechanisms for protecting the confidentiality of the plaintiff.

The district courts have discretion in applying this multi-factor balancing test. The case is now sent back to the Northern District of New York to apply it.

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