Free Speech

No Sealing or Pseudonymity for Sexual Assault Defendant

"[I]f the purported falsity of the complaint's allegations were sufficient to seal an entire case, then the law would recognize a presumption to seal instead of a presumption of openness."

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Chalmers on behalf of J.C. v. Martin, decided yesterday by Magistrate Judge Reid Neureiter (D. Colo), involved a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the plaintiff child's maternal grandfather. (A criminal investigation had been "closed without any charges.") Defendant sought to seal the case, or at least to proceed under a pseudonym, because,

Notwithstanding his denials, Defendant asserts that merely being associated with such allegations in public court documents will do irreparable harm to his reputation and standing in the community….. Defendant claims it would be 'fundamentally unfair' to expose him to 'speculation and uninformed judgments within the court of public opinion" before he has the opportunity to challenge the veracity of the allegations.

No, said the court:

"We begin with the fundamental presupposition that it is the responsibility of judges to avoid secrecy, in camera hearings and the concealment of the judicial process from public view. Courts are public institutions which exist for the public to serve the public interest. Even a superficial recognition of our judicial history compels one to recognize that secret court proceedings are anathema to a free society." "[L]awsuits are public events and the public has a legitimate interest in knowing the facts involved in them."

There is a strong presumption that documents essential to the judicial process are to be available to the public…. The presumption against restriction may be overcome if the party seeking to restrict access to records "articulate[s] a real and substantial interest that justifies depriving the public of access to the records that inform [the court's] decision-making process." …

In this case, Defendant has not made a sufficient showing to justify either restriction of the entire case or that he only be identified via initials. The suggestion that he is suffering clear injury merely by being named as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging sexual assault is not enough. A lawsuit is a means of seeking public judicial relief for a claimed injury. The public has an interest in the allegations of a lawsuit, the nature of the claims being made, and the parties involved…. "The public has a fundamental interest in understanding the disputes presented to and decided by the courts, so as to assure that they are run fairly and that judges act honestly."

At the same time, the public should know that a complaint filed in court is nothing more than a claim—an allegation—and nothing has yet been proved. Defendant in this case denies the allegation. People who learn of this case may make assumptions about what has happened, but as of now, the allegations are only allegations. The supposed harm from being the target of a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse is not enough to justify shrouding this case with a veil of secrecy. As Magistrate Judge Bennett of the District of Utah held in denying a Defendant's motion to completely seal a lawsuit because the plaintiff there was a vexatious litigant who supposedly was making false and damaging claims:

In nearly all civil and criminal litigation filed in the United States Courts, one party asserts that the allegations leveled against it by another party are patently false, and the result of the litigation may quickly prove that. However, if the purported falsity of the complaint's allegations were sufficient to seal an entire case, then the law would recognize a presumption to seal instead of a presumption of openness.

Miller v. Fluent Home, LLC (D. Utah 2020).

It may appear to be unfair that the supposed victim of the alleged assault is identified only by his initials while Defendant's full name is available for the public to see. But the victim is a minor, and the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2 (a)(3) specifically provides that for lawsuits involving minors, only the minor's initials, and not full name, are to be used in court filings. There is no similar rule protecting the identity of someone being accused of sexual assault.

There is one final reason why this case should not be restricted or the name of Defendant hidden by use of initials. There is an existing public police report of the episode underlying the allegations of this case created by the Greeley Police Department. That document is available to the public through a public records search. Restricting this case to conceal material that is already publicly available serves no legitimate purpose and runs counter to the general principle that court proceedings and filings should be open to the public….

This represents the overwhelming majority view in courts that have considered such matters; in both civil and criminal sexual assault cases, defendants are generally named. But there are some exceptions; see, e.g., here. For more on the law of pseudonymous litigation, check out this draft article that lays out the whole mess.