My friend Bonny Rafel obtained a decision recently from the U.S. District Court for New Jersey dealing with the interesting issue of when you may proceed in litigation using a pseudonym in place of the real name of a party. This issue arises on occasion, quite often when you are litigating medical or disability claims or cases involving minors.
Usually judges frown on the use of pseudonyms. The general rule is that the business of the people in public courts should be open and accessible to anyone interested in looking at the file. Use of a pseudonym to hide the identity of a party is less of a shield to public inquiry about litigation than sealing a file (which commonly occurs when privacy or national security interests are at issue. Think, for example, of proceedings involving terrorism suspects), but it is still disfavored.
In Bonny’s case, Doe v. Hartford Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73119 (D.N.J. 2006), her client had a disability claim based on bipolar disorder. The client was an attorney and he feared the stigma, potential loss of professional and business reputation, and aggravation to his illness associated with having his illness publicly known. Consequently, he asked the court for permission to proceed in the case under the “John Doe” pseudonym. The magistrate judge who initially heard the matter denied the motion. The plaintiff then appealed that ruling to the U.S. District Court judge.
After a thorough review of the case law and other authorities who have considered the matter, Judge Jose L. Linares utilized a balancing test: the plaintiff’s interest in privacy was compared to the public’s interest in knowing who was pursuing the litigation. Factors to be weighed in considering pseudonymity include the extent to which the identity of the party has been kept confidential, the reasons for the request for a pseudonym, the public interest in maintaining privacy, whether the issue presented is purely a legal issue or one that involves a public interest in knowing the party’s identity, the degree to which the refusal to allow a pseudonym will deter the party from litigating a legitimate claim, whether the party has “illegitimate ulterior motives” in seeking to keep his identity secret and whether those opposing pseudonymity have an improper motive for their opposition.
In the end the judge felt the matter was not a close call and allowed the disability claimant to proceed under the “John Doe” pseudonym. I'll try to get a copy of this decision and post it to the website library.
UPDATE: you can get see a copy of the court's order, courtesy of Bonny, here at the website library. Bonny also tells me that the case will be published as opposed to its original "not for publication" designation.