Free Speech

Partial Pseudonymity of an Appellate Decision

Good idea? Bad?


I wonder what people think about this: M.M. v. M.S. is a nonprecedential California appellate decision from last Wednesday, involving a lawsuit about alleged invasion of privacy in medical records. (My sense from my quick research is that the medical record was a medical marijuana card.)

Now keeping a case fully pseudonymous, with the parties name unavailable in the court files, is generally viewed by our legal system as a fairly substantial step, requiring some justification—a mild form of sealing of court documents. I think California courts are more open to this than some other courts, but even so pseudonymity is the exception rather than the rule, even though civil defendants, criminal defendants, and even plaintiffs would often prefer not to have their names appear in court decisions.

But here the pseudonymity seems to be present only in the court's opinion. The appellate and trial court dockets, which one can find using the case numbers given in the opinion, contain the parties' full names.

Anyone who really wants to research the case can easily find the names, and can find the local newspaper story from 2017, when the lawsuit was filed. So the public's interest in being able to monitor what courts are doing seems to be largely unimpaired; but the parties' privacy is protected—or, if you prefer, it becomes harder for the parties' future employers, business partners, neighbors, or lovers to learn this information by Googling for the parties' names.

Should we like this? Dislike it?

Does the existence of the article in the local newspaper affect your analysis? Note that there was no follow-up article about the appellate decision in the local paper; I'm not sure if that's because the newspaper hasn't gotten to it yet, doesn't find the appellate decision as newsworthy as the initial filing, or hasn't learned about the case.

Note also that the plaintiff appears to have been involved as an officer in a local political organization, and the defendants were a former city councilman and a local political activist.