Free Speech

Defendant in Civil Sexual Assault Case Allowed to Proceed Pseudonymously

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The court reasoned:

Even if the defendant has not provided medical documentation of the potential mental harm he would suffer if he were named, the court finds that the chance that he would suffer reputational harm is significant. The defendant is a partner of a well-known law firm in New York and an adjunct law school instructor.

But wouldn't nearly all people who are accused of sexual assault risk "reputational harm" and even "mental harm," even if they aren't law firm partners and law school teachers? Indeed, wouldn't that be true of people who are accused of other serious misconduct, such as embezzlement, fraud, and the like?

Here's the heart of the analysis—a minority view, I think, though one I've seen in various forms in some other cases—from Doe v. Doe, decided late last year by Judge Kiyo Matsumoto (E.D.N.Y.):

The plaintiff … alleg[es] that the defendant committed multiple torts against her, including sexual assault and battery….

"[W]hen determining whether a plaintiff may be allowed to maintain an action under a pseudonym, the plaintiff's interest in anonymity must be balanced against both the public interest in disclosure and any prejudice to the defendant." …

The plaintiff has made sensitive and personal disclosures in her complaint, including that she availed herself of a website through which young women meet older men who are potential "sugar dadd[ies]," and that she contracted sexually-transmitted diseases as a result of the defendant's alleged tortious conduct. The plaintiff has also provided a letter from a therapist whose "clinical opinion" is that the plaintiff "would be mentally and emotionally impacted if … her information is made public in this case," which weighs in favor of her anonymity …. The defendant acknowledges that he is aware of the plaintiff's identity, so even if the plaintiff's name is not disclosed in court filings, the defendant is not being anonymously accused by an unknown plaintiff….

The court finds that for many, if not more, of the same reasons that the plaintiff may proceed anonymously, the defendant should be able to do so as well….

Though the court agrees that the defendant has not offered any evidence beyond his own sworn statement that he would suffer mental harm if he were identified, that is only one factor under Sealed Plaintiff, and the harm to "innocent non-parties" is also considered under that factor. The defendant's former spouse and minor child are innocent third parties who would be vulnerable to mental harm if his name is disclosed.

Moreover, … [the fact that] the litigation involves matters that are highly sensitive and personal, weighs in favor of allowing the defendant to also proceed anonymously. The defendant is accused of meeting the plaintiff through a website that caters to potential "sugar dadd[ies]," then paying the plaintiff approximately $6,500 "for companionship and sex," transmitting two sexually-transmitted diseases to the plaintiff, and sexually assaulting her.

Even if the defendant has not provided medical documentation of the potential mental harm he would suffer if he were named, the court finds that the chance that he would suffer reputational harm is significant. The defendant is a partner of a well-known law firm in New York and an adjunct law school instructor. He is not alleged to have committed the tortious acts against a client, thus breaching his professional obligations and ethical canons, a circumstance which would present a stronger argument against allowing him to proceed anonymously. Rather, the allegations relate solely to his personal conduct.

Courts have recognized the obvious reputational harm to a defendant who is accused of downloading pornography. Similarly, the allegations that the defendant used a website to find a sexual relationship and companionship, and transmitted sexually-transmitted diseases, carry with them the clear potential for reputational harm, regardless of whether the defendant committed the sexual assault and battery he is accused of….

If the defendant were named, he would likely feel significant pressure to settle this case regardless of the merits of the plaintiff's allegations….

At this stage in the proceedings, if the plaintiff is allowed to proceed anonymously, as both parties agree she should be able to do, it would serve the interests of justice for the defendant to be able to do so as well, so that the parties are on equal footing as they litigate their respective claims and defenses. See Doe v. City of New York (S.D.N.Y. 2001) ("If we are to have a policy of protecting the names of individual litigants from public disclosure, there is a very substantial interest in doing so on a basis of equality.")….

As discussed above, the names of both the plaintiff and the defendant should be protected from disclosure, and that protection should extend to the parties' personal identifiable information, their addresses, the names of their employers, and the names of their family members. Beyond protecting the parties' identities and the identities of their families, however, the rest of the docket should remain public. There is a strong presumption of public access to judicial documents "based on the need for federal courts … to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice," and this "court must balance competing considerations against" that very strong presumption….

If you're interested in the substantive dispute, see the Complaint and the Answer.