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Doe v. Megless

August 5, 2010

JOHN DOE
v.
THOMAS MEGLESS, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sánchez, J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff John Doe asks this Court to permit him to proceed anonymously as he pursues his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Defendants Upper Merion Township (UMT), the UMT Area School District, the UMT Board of Directors, UMT School Safety Director Thomas Megless, and UMT Police Chief Ronald M. Fonock. Defendants contend this Court should deny Plaintiff's motion, arguing his case does not fall within one of the exceptional circumstances in which courts permit litigants to remain anonymous. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's motion will be denied.

FACTS

In March 2008, Defendants Megless and Fonock sent an email with an attached flyer to a number of public officials and private citizens in Upper Merion Township to alert them about a "suspicious person." The attached flyer identified Plaintiff and read in full: "Extra Patrols Around Schools, Suspicious Person [John Doe] has been known to hang around schools in Upper Merion and other townships. He has not approached any kids to this point. [John Doe's] mental status is unknown. If seen, stop and investigate." Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 13. The flyer included a picture of Plaintiff, his name, address, date of birth, and driver's license number, and his vehicle make, model, and license plate number. On April 1, 2008, Plaintiff's sibling alerted him to the flyer. On May 17, 2010, Plaintiff filed claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging deprivation of his freedom of movement; illegal seizure of his department of motor vehicles information; invasion of privacy; conspiracy; and failure to train, supervise and discipline agens. He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

DISCUSSION

Plaintiff moves to proceed anonymously, arguing he will face further stigmatization if his identity is revealed in this lawsuit. Plaintiff asserts because the flyer tacitly calls him a pedophile, his reputation will be damaged if he is forced to reveal his name. Plaintiff contends granting this motion supports public policy, because the public has an interest in protecting people when government officials falsely accused them of committing heinous crimes or having the capacity to commit such crimes. Plaintiff asserts he will not pursue his claim if he cannot proceed anonymously.

Defendants oppose Plaintiff's motion, arguing the public has a right to know who is accusing public officials of unconstitutional acts. They contend anonymity in this case has already been nullified, because countless individuals saw the flyer and are aware of Plaintiff's identity. Defendants further argue they did not label Doe as a pedophile because the flyer only referred to him as "suspicious." They assert Plaintiff gave any such label to himself through his court filings. Defendants contend there is nothing exceptional in Plaintiff's claim to warrant psuedonymity and to support removal of the transparency required in cases involving public officials.

Lawsuits are inherently public events. See Doe v. Morrisville, 130 F.R.D. 612, 614 (E.D. Pa. 1990) ("[L]awsuits are public events and the public has a legitimate interest in knowing the pertinent facts, including the true names of the parties."). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require litigants provide the names of all parties. Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(a); Morrisville, 130 F.R.D. at 614. The public has a presumptive right to open judicial proceedings, and this right is not taken lightly. Doe v. Kamehameha Sch./Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate,596 F.3d 1036, 1043 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Doe v. Provident Life and Accident Ins. Co., 176 F.R.D. 464, 465 (E.D. Pa. 1997) ("This Court recognizes the strong public interest militating against pseudonymity - the public right of access to civil judicial records, and proceedings."). A plaintiff's use of a pseudonym "runs afoul of the public's common law right of access to judicial proceedings." Does I Thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d 1058, 1067 (9th Cir. 2000).

A court may allow a party to proceed anonymously in exceptional cases. Morrisville, 130 F.R.D at 614 ("Under special circumstances . . . courts have allowed parties to use fictitious names, particularly where necessary to protect privacy."). Anonymity may be warranted if a case involves highly sensitive or personal matters, or if there is a concrete risk of injury to the plaintiff by disclosure. M. M. v. Zavaras, 139 F.3d 798, 803 (10th Cir. 1998). To proceed anonymously, a plaintiff must show "both a fear of severe harm, and that the fear of severe harm is reasonable." Kamehameha Sch.,596 F.3d at 1043. The risk a plaintiff may suffer some embarrassment is not enough. Morrisville, 130 F.R.D. at 614; see also Rose v. Beaumont Indep. Sch. Dist., 240 F.R.D. 264, 266 (E. D. Tex. 2007) ("The fact that a party may suffer some personal embarrassment or humiliation, standing alone, is insufficient to justify the use of a pseudonym.").

A district court has broad discretion to decide whether to permit a plaintiff to proceed anonymously. Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plan, Inc., 527 F.3d 358, 371 n.2 (3d Cir. 2008). In making this determination, "the public's right of access [to the court] should prevail unless the party requesting pseudonymity demonstrates that [his] interests in privacy or security justify pseudonymity." Doe v. Evans, 202 F.R.D. 173, 175 (E.D. Pa. 2001).*fn1

A district court considers a number of non-exclusive factors when deciding whether to grant a party anonymity. Evans, 202 F.R.D. at 175. Factors in favor of anonymity include: (1) the extent litigant has kept his identity confidential; (2) the reason for anonymity; (3) if there is public interest in favor of anonymity; (4) if the case is fact sensitive or purely of a legal nature; (5) whether the litigant will pursue his claim if he cannot proceed anonymously; and (6) if the party opposing anonymity has illegitimate ulterior motives. Id. at 175-76. Factors against anonymity include: (1) the general level of public interest in the case; (2) if there is a higher level of public interest in the trial because of the subject matter involved or the public status of a litigant; and (3) if the party seeking anonymity has an ulterior motive. Id.

The first factor requires this Court to examine the extent of anonymity existing both before and after the complaint is filed. Provident, 176 F.R.D. at 468. A court is more likely to grant pseudonymity if a party's anonymity has been preserved. See id. (allowing the plaintiff to proceed anonymously because he had only revealed his identity to his counsel, his immediate family, and his medical providersand requested his identity be concealed from the defendant); see also F. B. v. E. Stroudsburg Univ., No. 09-525, 2009 WL 2003363, at *3 (M.D. Pa. July 7, 2009) (weighing this factor in favor of the plaintiff because, although the defendants knew the plaintiff's identity, the plaintiff had not told her close family and friends about her pending suit). Here, although Defendants know Plaintiff's identity, Plaintiff contends he has not revealed his identity to anyone other than his attorney. The flyer which forms the basis of Plaintiff's complaint, however, reveals his identity to the public. It was sent to many Upper Merion residents, and countless people in the community viewed it. Even if Plaintiff's claim proceeded using the flyer in redacted form, Defendants assert the mere description of the events in this litigation will reveal the identity of Plaintiff. This Court recognizes the steps Plaintiff has taken to maintain confidentiality, but the flyer which forms the basis of his complaint makes this factor weigh against him.

The second factor requires this Court to consider the basis for Plaintiff's requested anonymity. In Provident, the plaintiff requested anonymity to prevent disclosure of his mental illness. 176 F.R.D. at 465. The Provident court acknowledged the social stigma associated with mental illness and held the plaintiff's fear of stigmatization was reasonable because "the plaintiff may [ ] suffer irreparable harm to his professional reputation [from disclosure]." Id. Here, Plaintiff has not demonstrated he would suffer irreparable harm or a specific injury if his identity is disclosed. While there are social stigmas attached to pedophilic behavior, whether Plaintiff is a pedophile is not at issue here. Instead, the question is whether Defendants can be liable for distributing a flyer stating Plaintiff was acting suspiciously in the vicinity of schools. This case is also distinguishable because unlike the plaintiff in Provident, whose mental health history was unknown to his friends, colleagues, and community, many people in Plaintiff's community have seen the flyer. The second factor does not weigh strongly in Plaintiff's favor, because, although there are social stigmas associated with pedophilia which could warrant anonymity, Plaintiff did not demonstrate he will be further stigmatized if he is denied anonymity.

The third factor asks this Court to consider whether the public interest supports anonymity. Public interest supports anonymity when denying pseudonymity would deter other similarly situated plaintiffs from bringing suit. See Provident, 176 F.R.D. at 468 ("[D]enying plaintiff the use of a pseudonym may deter other people who are suffering from mental illnesses from suing . . . merely because they fear that they will be stigmatized in their community if they are forced to bring suit under their true identity."). This Court has seen no evidence to show disclosing Plaintiff's identity will prevent other similarly situated plaintiffs from bringing suit. This Court knows of no other such ...


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