Free Speech

Plaintiffs Seeking Religious Exemption from Private Employer's Vaccine Mandate Allowed to Proceed Pseudonymously

"Given the charged atmosphere concerning vaccinations and vaccine mandates, and for the other reasons discussed above, the Court is persuaded that this is the rare case where a party should be permitted to proceed pseudonymously."

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In Doe 1 v. Northshore Univ. Healthsystem, decided yesterday by Judge John F. Kness (N.D. Ill.), the court began by acknowledging the general rule that people may not sue pseudonymously:

Under Rule 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[t]he title of the complaint must name all the parties." That rule "instantiates the principle that judicial proceedings, civil as well as criminal, are to be conducted in public." Subject to the "strong presumption of public access," the use of fictitious names is thus "generally frowned upon." …

"Judicial proceedings are supposed to be open, as these cases make clear, in order to enable the proceedings to be monitored by the public. The concealment of a party's name impedes public access to the facts of the case, which include the parties' identity." …. The presumption against pseudonymity is amplified by the public's constitutionally guaranteed right of access to court proceedings…. "[T]he people have a right to know who is using their courts."

Parties seeking to overcome the presumption against proceeding pseudonymously "must demonstrate 'exceptional circumstances' that outweigh both the public policy in favor of identified parties and the prejudice to the opposing party that would result from anonymity." The party requesting pseudonymity "bears the burden of proof to show that" such exceptional circumstances "outweigh[] the ordinary presumption of judicial openness."

Plaintiffs' identities are among the "facts of the case" to which the public is entitled. Plaintiffs thus "bear[] the burden" of showing that the "strong presumption of judicial openness" is overcome in this case.

Nonetheless, plaintiffs offered three arguments in support of pseudonymity:

  1. "Plaintiffs argue that their decisions not to get vaccinated 'relate to sensitive and private medical decisions.'"
  2. "[T]hey contend that those decisions stem from their 'private religious beliefs.'"
  3. "Plaintiffs appeal to 'their legitimate fear of ostracism, humiliation and retaliation from co-workers, supervisors and the public at large.'"

And the court agreed:

Although the issue is close, the Court agrees that Plaintiffs have met their burden and should be allowed to proceed pseudonymously. The bulk of Plaintiffs' concerns are built into their third argument for pseudonymity: namely, they "legitimately fear that public disclosure of their quintessentially private religious beliefs and medical decisions will make them the targets of intensified and focused scorn and humiliation directed at them and their families." Plaintiffs have offered sufficient support for the harms they will allegedly suffer if their identities are revealed during this litigation, so the Court finds their argument overcomes the "strong presumption of public access."

Plaintiffs cite news articles and online comments about this case in which commenters ridicule or insult Plaintiffs and call for them to be fired. Plaintiffs also refer to the "broader sentiment around the country," and "threats, ridicule, ostracism, harassment, scorn and opprobrium directed more generally at those who, like [Plaintiffs], have religious objections to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine." Plaintiffs' appeals to online comments on national news sources—The Hill and MSN—and "broader sentiment[s]" demonstrate "risk of serious social stigmatization surpassing a general fear of embarrassment."

Moreover, Plaintiffs offer additional offline examples in support of their concerns. Plaintiffs represent that they "have suffered pressure, intimidation and harassment from their superiors who know (from NorthShore) that they are religiously opposed to vaccination." Plaintiffs describe a "peaceful protest" at which one of the Plaintiffs "was harassed by an individual to the point where law enforcement [was] required to come and rescue [Plaintiff] from that situation, and remove the person harassing her from her proximity." Such examples, if true, do present cause for concern. {NorthShore disputes at least some of the assertions in Plaintiffs' counsel's declaration.} In addition to the arguments involving medical records and the private nature of religious beliefs, these concerns suffice to overcome the "strong presumption of public access." …

Moreover, some guidance should be taken from the Supreme Court—which recently addressed pseudonymous litigation by plaintiffs challenging a vaccine mandate. Neither the concurrence nor the dissent from denial of the preliminary injunction in Does 1–3 v. Mills discussed the issue of pseudonymity; rather, the plaintiffs' pseudonymity was accepted, if only tacitly. Given the charged atmosphere concerning vaccinations and vaccine mandates, and for the other reasons discussed above, the Court is persuaded that this is the rare case where a party should be permitted to proceed pseudonymously….

It's hard to reconcile this, I think, with the many cases denying pseudonymity to people who face much more stigma from being identified, such as (1) civil defendants being accused of rape, sexual harassment, malpractice, fraud, embezzlement, and the like, or (2) employment plaintiffs who are afraid of getting a reputation for litigiousness, which might lead future employers not to hire them. Nor is this covered by the precedents that allow facial legal challenges to government policies, where the facts related to the plaintiffs are comparatively unimportant; this challenge turned in large measure on the facts, both about the defendants and about the plaintiffs. Still, the pseudonymity caselaw is badly split in all these areas (and indeed a few very rare cases allow pseudonymity even for the civil rape / sexual harassment / etc. defendants). This is one of the cases that comes out more in favor of pseudonymity.