Can California "Safe at Home" Law Be Used to Retroactively Pseudonymize Past Cases?

The law was set up to protect the home addresses of victims of domestic violence, stalking, and the like; but it also has a provision that allows victims to conceal their names from the public when litigating.

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The California "Safe at Home Confidential Address Program" provides for special forwarding addresses for people who swear that they are "attempting to escape from actual or threatened domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, or elder or dependent adult abuse," and need to "establish new names or addresses in order to prevent their assailants or probable assailants from finding them" (and possibly provide some corroborating evidence).

And Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 367.3, just enacted in 2019, adds to that:

A protected person who is a party in a civil proceeding may proceed using a pseudonym, either John Doe, Jane Doe, or Doe, for the true name of the protected person and may exclude or redact from all pleadings and documents filed in the action other identifying characteristics of the protected person.

Such litigants must confidentially inform the other parties and the court of their true identity, but the identity may not appear in the court records. No showing is required of any specific reason for pseudonymity, beyond the person's participation in the Safe at Home program.

Does this mean that a person, just by joining the Safe at Home program, may also retroactively reopen his past cases, and then get them sealed or pseudonymized? Several recent federal decisions, all apparently involving one litigant (a self-described "avid blogger on record sealing expungement, and First Amendment issues"), deal with the subject.

[1.] The cases make clear that § 367.3 isn't binding federal courts: A federal court "is bound by Ninth Circuit precedent regarding public access to court records rather than the California Code of Civil Procedure." "California's Government Code and Code of Civil Procedure inform the Court's exercise of [its] power [to determine whether to make information in the record confidential], but they do not bind the Court because they provide procedural protections in dealing with California's state government and for litigants in California state courts." (One court seemed open to the possibility that § 367.3 might apply to cases involving California substantive law, but didn't reach the issue because the case involved only federal law and Nevada law.)

[2.] Even federal courts seem willing to use their discretion to redact street addresses and e-mail addresses of people covered by § 367.3. See here and here.

[3.] But when it comes to pseudonymization, the record is mixed. For instance, from Chaker-Delnero v. Nevada Federal Credit Union, decided Wednesday by Magistrate Judge Elayna Youchah (D. Nev.):

The Ninth Circuit held that "the identity of the parties in any action, civil or criminal, should not be concealed except in an unusual case, where there is a need for a cloak of anonymity." When determining whether pseudonymity is necessary, the Court will balance the need to protect a person from injury or harassment against the presumption that the identity of parties is public information. However, Plaintiff fails to explain how redacting information contained within public filings in this case, available throughout this dispute that began in 2006, will protect him from some current or future harm or harassment. Plaintiff has not introduced any additional evidence that he is currently a victim of harassment.

And from Del Nero v. NCO Financial Systems, Inc., decided in June by Judge Joshua Wolson (E.D. Pa.):

The public's common law right of access extends to the true names of the parties involved in litigation. Under Third Circuit law, litigants may proceed anonymously in exceptional cases where a reasonable fear of severe harm exists. To make that determination, courts consider a lengthy, non-exhaustive list of factors. Most importantly, sealing Mr. Del Nero's identity will not shield him from further harassment, and leaving his name on the public docket will not subject him to additional harassment. The people who have targeted Mr. Del Nero know who he is, and their harassment has nothing to do with his involvement in this case. Thus, considering the unique facts of this case, the Court will not permit Mr. Del Nero to use a pseudonym in this matter.

Del Nero v. Allstate Ins. Co., decided in June by Judge Philip Gutierrez (C.D. Cal.), takes the same view, and adds this about the plaintiff's attempt to seal the entire case based on the supposed identifying information in the record: "The Court has reviewed the record and Plaintiff's address does not appear anywhere. Although the twenty-one-year-old complaint mentions the name of the city that Plaintiff lived in at the time, Plaintiff has not shown that the Safe At Home program protects the name of the city he lived in over twenty years ago."

On the other hand, Doe v. Collectco, Inc., decided Tuesday by Magistrate Judge Daniel Albregts (D. Nev.), rejected the request to "seal the entire record" but allowed pseudonymization:

Here, the Court finds good reason to redact Plaintiff's address and email and replace his name with "John Doe." Plaintiff has provided evidence of his participation in the Safe at Home Program, of a threat, and of his connection with a criminal event. And through his motions, Plaintiff seeks to follow the recommendations of the Safe at Home Program, asking—in the alternative to sealing—for the Court to replace his name with "John Doe" and redact his addresses. The Court finds the Southern District of California's approach to Plaintiffs' similar requests persuasive ….

And in Doe v. Winn & Sims, decided in June by Judge Marilyn Huff (S.D. Cal.), the court likewise rejected the "request to seal the entire record" but allowed pseudonymization:

That being said, sufficient cause supports Plaintiff's supplemental request to redact his name from the docket and allow him to proceed under the pseudonym "John Doe." The Ninth Circuit allows parties to proceed anonymously when the party's "need for anonymity" to avoid physical injury outweighs the "prejudice to the opposing party and the public's interest in knowing the party's identity." That is the case here. Additionally, redacting Plaintiff's name from the record would not prejudice any party because Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the action over fifteen years ago. Further, the public's interest in this case primarily centers around the underlying nature of the action, a class action against a debt collection service, not Plaintiff's identity.

[UPDATE Aug. 4, 2021: I've just learned that in a different federal case, in Arizona, the judge did completely seal a case on the same litigant's request.]

The nature of this particular litigant's case-specific justification for pseudonymization—which federal courts require, given that they aren't bound by the automatic pseudonymization required by the California statute—is hard to piece together, since some of his motions to seal and many of the exhibits accompanying them are themselves sealed. The best I could see from the documents that haven't been sealed is that "Plaintiff states that he enrolled in the program because he escaped two near death experiences and received several threats."

[4.] What about in California court? There, § 367.3 does apply, but the record there too is mixed. The same litigant apparently got the San Diego Superior Court to pseudonymize a lawsuit against him by Scott McMillan—as it happens, a lawsuit that indirectly stems in part from an attempt to get McMillan to remove a case mentioning the litigant from a caselaw repository that McMillan operates. The litigant has moved to do the same as to the appeal of that lawsuit (that motion is pending). Likewise, in a case involving an entirely different litigant (B.M.M. v. Baca, Contra Costa County), there was at least a tentative decision allowing pseudonymity on the strength of § 367.3, though there was also another traditional basis for pseudonymity present—plaintiff was alleged to be a sexual assault victim:

Although this action was filled prior to the enactment of CCP §367.3, Plaintiff qualifies as a "protected person" entitled to use a pseudonym since he is an active participant in an address confidentiality program under Gov. Code §6205. In order to comply with the requirements of CCP §367.3, however, Plaintiff shall file and serve "a confidential information form for this purpose that includes the protected person's name and other identifying characteristics being excluded or redacted." CCP §367.3(b)(1). The Court will keep the confidential information form confidential as required by that section of the Code.

Even if Plaintiff did not qualify for the protections of this statute, he still would be entitled to the use of a pseudonym given the sensitive, personal nature of the claims made in this suit since they involve allegations of sexual assault. The Court finds that any prejudice to Defendant from the use of the pseudonym is slight. California courts have frequently recognized the appropriateness of the use of a pseudonym in such circumstances.

On the other hand, in another case involving another litigant (Danon v. Johnson, Los Angeles County), there was at least a tentative decision concluding that § 367.3 wouldn't ordinarily call for retroactive pseudonymization; the court took the view that such requests remain subject to the standard California sealing rules, Cal. R. Ct. 2.550 & 2.551:

Defendant identifies an overriding interest in Plaintiff's safety or confidentiality that overcomes the right of public access to the records in this proceeding. In support that a substantial probability exists that the overriding interest will be prejudiced without sealing, Defendant attests to being a victim of sexual crimes by the Plaintiff; that Plaintiff has threatened to track and kill Defendant; and that the public would have access to sensitive details of actions committed against her as a matter of public record. The foregoing supports an interest in Plaintiff's safety or confidentiality that Code of Civil Procedure section 367.3 supports is an overriding interest, by providing that participants are entitled to proceed pseudonymously.

However, in this case, the court does not find that a substantial probability exists the overriding interest will be prejudiced without redaction and supporting sealing the record. Defendant requests retroactive redaction of Defendant's name and address from numerous documents in this action over the course of approximately eighteen months. "[T]here is no justification for sealing records that contain only facts already known or available to the public." (H.B. Fuller Co. v. Doe (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 879, 898.)

Prior to Defendant's first motion to redact documents, the parties proceeded for over thirteen months, both sides filing documents without anonymity…. As a practical matter, Defendant's identity has been publicly available in this action for a significant time, as well as in the other action.

Next, the court notes that the primary purpose of the Safe at Home program is to provide a means for the victim to keep a new residence address confidential; and the Defendant has not brought facts to the court's attention that a new residential address used by Defendant has been disclosed in the filings. These facts undermine Defendant's argument that Defendant's interest in safety and confidentiality under the Safe at Home program would be prejudiced if the record is not sealed or redacted, as the information disclosing the Defendant's identity have been public for at least this time, and there is no showing that a new residential address has been disclosed. (Cf. Savaglio v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 588, 600 (unsealed documents filed before obtaining order to seal inconsistent with intent to enforce rights to obtain sealed records).)

And, returning to the litigant in the federal cases I began with, the California Court of Appeal in April rejected (without detailed explanation) a § 367.3 motion to pseudonymize the litigation in Chaker v. Superior Court.

[5.] And the cases I outline above help show, I think, the value of having people litigate under their own name. Among many other reasons,

  • Knowing a party's name can help writers who cover court cases (like me) see if a lawsuit is part of a broader pattern of litigation, and show readers any patterns that might emerge.
  • It can help us figure out whether one of the parties had been found to be a vexatious litigant.
  • It can help us figure out whether one of the parties had been adjudicated to have done things that may suggest that he's not trustworthy.
  • It can also help us see if the party had actually been successful in interesting and important past cases (see this First Amendment case and this First Amendment-adjacent case).

And open court records can help courts and opposing parties as well. For instance, in Chaker v. Superior Court, the court apparently searched for past filings by the petitioner to verify certain statements in the petition; that would have been at least much harder if those past filings had been pseudonymized. (It's possible for a court to keep its files indexed not just by the party's public identified name, but also by the otherwise sealed actual name, to facilitate such searches by judicial system insiders; but I'm not sure that courts generally do that, and it would be especially difficult if the search requires reviewing files from multiple courts.) Likewise, opposing parties may search for past filings by a party and see whether any are related to the current case, and whether such filings make any admissions or arguments that may be relevant to this case.

The general First Amendment rule, and the general rule under California common law principles, is that parties to lawsuits aren't pseudonymized unless there's a real factual basis to justify the pseudonymity (with the substantial exception of cases involving minors):

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require plaintiffs to disclose their names in the instrument they file to commence a lawsuit. Public access to this information is more than a customary procedural formality; First Amendment guarantees are implicated when a court decides to restrict public scrutiny of judicial proceedings.

I'm therefore inclined to say that being in the Safe At Home program shouldn't by itself be a categorical exception from this rule, and that there should at least be a specific showing of exactly how including the protected party's name in a court filing—especially in an old case, but even in a new one—would actually create a material risk of harm to the party. In any event, I'm writing a law review article about pseudonymous litigation for an upcoming symposium, and I hope to consider such matters in more detail there.