The Volokh Conspiracy
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From Langworthy v. Whatcom County Super. Ct., decided Wednesday by Judge John C. Coughenour (W.D. Wash.):
Plaintiff … sues the Whatcom County courts based on their alleged failures to provide her reasonable accommodations in several proceedings … . Ms. Langworthy alleged that court staff and judges failed to provide her with reasonable accommodations and took adverse actions against her based on her disability. [Substantive analysis of the disability law claims omitted. -EV] …
Ms. Langworthy [also] asks the Court to seal her "medical documentation" and "psychiatric reports" in their entirety and to redact "other portions of the record pertaining to her mental health diagnoses and symptomology" to preserve her privacy and protect her from ongoing discrimination. She suggests that "the Court might order the redaction of Ms. Langworthy's name, and/or specific portions of the record pertaining to privacy interests." … The Court will construe Ms. Langworthy's motion as a request to redact her name (in other words, to proceed anonymously), to seal Docket Number 17, and to redact the portions of her complaints that describe her mental health diagnoses and symptomology.
The Court begins with a strong presumption in favor of access to court records. Kamakana v. City & Cnty. of Honolulu, (9th Cir. 2006). Court records may be sealed only when the public's right of access is outweighed by interests that favor nondisclosure. The party seeking to seal a complaint or portions thereof bears the burden of showing that there are compelling reasons to seal that outweigh the public's interest in disclosure. "The mere fact that the production of records may lead to a litigant's embarrassment … will not, without more, compel the court to seal."
Similarly, the presumption in litigation is that parties must use their names. Does I Thru XXII v. Advanced Textile Corp. (9th Cir. 2000). A party may proceed anonymously only when "special circumstances justify secrecy." To determine whether to allow a party to proceed anonymously, a district should "consider five factors: '(1) the severity of the threatened harm, (2) the reasonableness of the anonymous party's fears, … (3) the anonymous party's vulnerability to such retaliation,' (4) the prejudice to the opposing party, and (5) the public interest." Doe v. Kamehameha Sch./Bernice Pauahi Bishop Est. (9th Cir. 2010).
Having considered the Advanced Textile factors, the Court DENIES Ms. Langworthy's request for anonymity. The potential harm to be suffered by Ms. Langworthy is largely speculative. Ms. Langworthy notes that "[t]here is a pervading prejudice against disability in general" and "[p]eople with hidden disabilities … experience routine bias." The Court understands Ms. Langworthy's concern and recognizes that exposing her disabilities publicly by filing a lawsuit carries some risk that she will experience discrimination.
Nevertheless, while all ADA plaintiffs face that risk, there is no tradition of anonymous ADA litigation. Ms. Langworthy evidently believes that the opposing parties in her state court cases are accessing the docket in this case, but her concern does not appear to rise above the level of speculation, nor does she articulate any harm flowing from such access. Accordingly, Ms. Langworthy has not overcome the presumption against anonymous litigation.
The Court also DENIES Ms. Langworthy's request to redact the portions of her complaints identifying her mental health diagnoses and symptomology. The allegations in the complaints about Ms. Langworthy's disabilities implicate personal privacy interests.
But when an individual brings a claim with respect to which her disabilities are central, the public has a substantial interest in knowing about those disabilities so it can meaningfully oversee the Court's exercise of its judicial power. As a result, an ADA plaintiff's privacy interest will often yield to some degree to the public's interest in open judicial proceedings. While the complaints identify Ms. Langworthy's mental health diagnoses and symptoms, the information provided is not so detailed that her privacy interest in the information outweighs the public's interest in access.
On the other hand, the medical documentation and psychological reports filed as attachments to Ms. Langworthy's first amended complaint contain significantly more detail. This level of detail about Ms. Langworthy's conditions is not necessary for the public to review the proceedings. Therefore, the Court finds that Ms. Langworthy's interest in keeping these records private is a compelling reason that outweighs the public's interest in disclosure and GRANTS Ms. Langworthy's request to seal Docket Number 17.