The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From Doe v. Truist Financial Corp., decided Tuesday by Judge Victoria Marie Calvert (N.D. Ga.):
Plaintiff was an employee of Defendant Truist Financial Corp. which provided short term disability benefits to its employees through the Truist Financial Corporation Employee Benefit Plan. Plaintiff ceased working on April 22, 2021 due to severe anxiety which manifested in psychological and emotional distress and panic attacks. Plaintiff was denied short term disability benefits by the Plan's administrator, Defendant Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company, a determination which she challenges here.
Plaintiff seeks to proceed anonymously because she is concerned that this suit, regarding whether she "is totally disabled from her position as a Wealth Advisor," "could mar her vocational and social future" in the event that she overcomes her "severe mental problems." …
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires that a complaint "include the names of all parties." The Eleventh Circuit has found that this requirement "serves more than administrative convenience …. It protects the public's legitimate interest in knowing all of the facts involved, including the identities of the parties." "This creates a strong presumption in favor of parties proceeding in their own names," and courts permit plaintiffs to proceed under an anonymous or fictitious name only in "exceptional cases." …
[T]he Court recognizes "[c]ourts have permitted plaintiffs to proceed anonymously in cases involving mental illness." However, alleging the existence of a mental illness alone is not sufficient to meet the relevant standard; "[t]he ultimate test for permitting a plaintiff to proceed anonymously is whether the plaintiff has a substantial privacy right which outweighs the "customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings."
A helpful analysis of mental illness as a basis for proceeding anonymously in the employment context is found in Doe v. Ind. Black Expo, Inc. (S.D. Ind. 1996). In that case, the plaintiff alleged he was "subjected to unlawful harassment, and ultimately was fired unlawfully" for reasons "including creating a 'stressful and abusive work environment' that caused stress aggravating plaintiff's 'stress related problems,' and firing him for taking time off to receive mental health treatment." The plaintiff sought to proceed anonymously based on a concern for his "current employment and other business interests."
That court denied leave to proceed anonymously. First, it noted that even where the "defendants know the plaintiff's identity," there is a still possibility of prejudice to defendants who would be hindered in their efforts "to defend themselves from adverse publicity and other collateral, but often inevitable, effects of civil litigation." Next, the court noted that while the plaintiff's concerns about his privacy were understandable, there was "no issue here of physical safety or retaliation … [and that the] concerns in this case are centered upon his economic well-being and possible embarrassment or humiliation." It reasoned that "courts have generally rejected attempts to proceed under fictitious names based solely on such concerns." Instead, it observed that "[t]he concerns this plaintiff has raised are concerns that could be raised by plaintiffs in many employment discrimination cases, including many asserting claims for discrimination based upon disabilities."
The Court, with the benefit of the above persuasive authority, finds that Plaintiff has not met her burden of showing a need to proceed anonymously which outweighs the presumption of judicial openness. The Court recognizes the real concerns Plaintiff has with the impact of this litigation on future employment, but Plaintiff does not allege a risk of physical harm or harassment, or any impact at all outside of the employment context other than a vague reference to her "social future." ….
[A past decision] identified certain less restrictive alternatives … for protecting a plaintiff's identity, which the Court offers here:
First, the Court will refer to Plaintiff by her first name and last initial in future orders, consistent with its practice in Social Security cases (where there is a similar concern over the disclosure of medical information). Second, confidential medical records or other evidence containing explicit and/or sensitive health information may be redacted and/or filed under seal consistent with the Court's Local Rules. Third, the Court … [stands ready to issue] a protective order that further protects Plaintiff's privacy interests. Thus, while Plaintiff may not conceal her name from the complaint and docket, other procedures may be utilized to address the privacy concerns she has identified.
Courts are generally split on whether pseudonymity is allowed in order to avoid revealing one's mental illness or other mental condition; see Appendices 3a & 3b of my The Law of Pseudonymous Litigation article for more.