Brief Fact Summary.
Plaintiffs sued Defendants, alleging that Defendants had violated Plaintiffs’ civil rights and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by endorsing prayer in a public-school classroom. The two individual plaintiffs sought leave of court to proceed using pseudonyms, arguing that they needed to remain anonymous in fear of reprisal from the community.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A party may remain anonymous during the litigation of a matter so long as a substantial privacy right outweighs the customary and constitutional presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.
Rather, courts have also considered additional factors such as whether the plaintiffs were minors, whether they were threatened with violence or physical harm by proceeding in their own names, and whether their anonymity posed a unique threat of fundamental unfairness to the defendant.View Full Point of Law
Plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court against Defendants, alleging that the defendants had violated the plaintiffs’ civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by endorsing prayer in a public-school classroom. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs. Subsequently, the Does filed a motion requesting to use pseudonyms for them and their two children during the litigation rather than their actual names out of fear of reprisal from members of the community. In support of their request, Plaintiffs filed declarations stating that their children had been bullied and singled out for not participating in the classroom prayer. Additionally, the declarations stated that the defendant-teachers had pressured the children to ignore the wishes of their parents and join in classroom prayer. When the children refused, the teachers ostracized the children. Given this conduct by Defendants, Plaintiffs argued that they needed to remain anonymous or else suffer broader harm from the community. Three of the five Defendants opposed the motion.
May a party remain anonymous during the litigation of a matter so long as a substantial privacy right outweighs the customary and constitutional presumption of openness in judicial proceedings?
Yes. The court granted Plaintiffs’ motion, holding that a party may remain anonymous during the litigation of a matter so long as a substantial privacy right outweighs the customary and constitutional presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.
A party may remain anonymous during the litigation of a matter so long as a substantial privacy right outweighs the customary and constitutional presumption of openness in judicial proceedings. Although FRCP Rule 10(a) requires that a complaint must list all names involved in a lawsuit, there are some exceptional circumstances, in which the public interest in knowing the identities of the parties must yield to a policy of protecting the privacy interests of the litigants. To determine whether a plaintiff may remain anonymous during litigation, courts must first examine whether (1) the plaintiffs seeking anonymity are challenging governmental activity, (2) the prosecution of the suit compels the plaintiffs to disclose information of the utmost intimacy, and (3) the plaintiffs will be compelled to admit their intention to engage in illegal conduct and thus risk criminal prosecution. See Doe v. Stegall, 653 F.2d 180 (5th Cir. 1981); Southern Methodist University Association v. Wynne & Jaffe, 599 F.2d 707 (5th Cir. 1979). Additionally, courts need to consider whether any children-plaintiffs would be threatened with violence or physical harm by proceeding in their own names, and whether anonymity poses a threat of fundamental unfairness to a defendant. In cases involving the safety of children, the gravity of the danger posed by revealing plaintiffs’ identities need not be as great as in cases that does not involve child litigants. Therefore, even where the evidence of retaliatory violence is not particularly strong, the balance can tip in favor of anonymity in a case involving child litigants who are seeking to prevent the state from intruding into a matter of the “utmost intimacy.”
Here, two factors were present. First, Plaintiffs clearly challenged governmental activity (i.e., Defendants’ alleged policy of allowing teacher-led prayer in a public school classroom). However, this weighed against Plaintiffs because Plaintiffs sued both a governmental entity (which could suffer no injury to its reputation) and individual defendants (who could suffer injury to their reputation due to the lawsuit). Second, Plaintiffs would be compelled to disclose information of the utmost privacy (i.e., religious beliefs). While the compulsory disclosure of religious beliefs alone would be insufficient ground to grant Plaintiff’s motion, the fact that the case involved child-litigants ultimately tipped the scale of balance in favor of Plaintiffs. There was evidence that Plaintiffs’ children suffered significant retaliatory harm at the hands of defendant-teachers. If the teachers pressured the children to join in classroom prayer and then ostracized the children for refusing to do so, members of the community at large were likely to engage in similar or more extreme conduct. Additionally, Defendants’ interests and risk of unfairness did not outweigh the plaintiffs’ privacy interest. There was no compelling need for Defendants to publicize Plaintiffs’ names when the heart of the matter was a determination of the constitutionality of prayer in a public-school setting. Accordingly, given the exceptional circumstances, Plaintiffs’ motion for anonymity was granted.