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No Pseudonymity in Student's Claim That She Was Wrongly Found to Have Cheated


From Doe v. Univ. of Penn., decided today by Judge Cynthia Rufe (E.D. Pa.):

At all times relevant to this action, Plaintiff was a student in Penn's Pre-Med Post- Baccalaureate Program …. Plaintiff began the Program in May 2020, and had planned to apply to medical school upon its completion in Spring 2021. Plaintiff asserts that Professor Simon Tong created a discriminatory environment in her chemistry lab class by making the course "more difficult for Plaintiff," who was the only South Asian female in the class. Plaintiff avers that Professor Tong "would not grant Plaintiff's [request for an] extension … due to her race, [but] granted an extension to the class when other, non-minority, students joined in the request." …

Plaintiff avers that towards the end of the Program, her classmate H.B. emailed her questions regarding a final lab report that each student was required to complete ("the Lab Report"). Plaintiff alleges that H.B. sent this email on behalf of A.R., another classmate who had initially asked H.B. the same questions. Plaintiff replied to H.B.'s email the same day, answering the questions and attaching a copy of her completed Lab Report. H.B. then forwarded Plaintiff's Lab Report to A.R., and A.R. used Plaintiff's Lab Report to complete her own.

On May 12, 2021, Plaintiff received notice from the Office of Student Conduct stating that Plaintiff had been accused of violating Penn's Academic Integrity Code by producing a Lab Report substantially similar to that of A.R. On June 7, 2021, Plaintiff submitted a bias incident report to Penn, stating that only Plaintiff and A.R.—two minority female students—had been accused of cheating, while H.B.—a Caucasian male student—had not. Plaintiff then met with the Vice Provost and the Director of the Women's Center at Penn and informed them of Professor Tong's alleged discriminatory conduct. Plaintiff avers that Penn failed to adequately follow up with Plaintiff after this meeting.

On July 9, 2021, Plaintiff received a letter from Penn formally charging her with an academic integrity violation. After a hearing before a Hearing Panel, Plaintiff was found responsible for violating Penn's Academic Integrity Code, and was sanctioned to a one-and-a- half-year suspension….

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires all parties to be named in the case caption.6 Rule 10(a) "illustrates 'the principle that judicial proceedings, civil as well as criminal, are to be conducted in public.'" Thus, a party will be permitted to proceed on an anonymous basis only in "exceptional cases." Courts have long recognized that the circumstances of a case, particularly where litigants may suffer extreme distress or danger from their participation in the lawsuit, may justify allowing a party to proceed under a pseudonym. This status has been granted in cases involving "abortion, birth control, transsexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS, and homosexuality." However, the potential for embarrassment or economic harm is insufficient….

In this case, the potential harm to Plaintiff and those similarly situated is not enough to outweigh the public's interest in an open proceeding. Plaintiff argues that disclosing her name in this action would "permanently associate with her with the[] baseless charges," and may hinder her chances of being accepted into medical school and/or her ability to pursue future career opportunities. In short, Plaintiff argues that anonymity is necessary to prevent possible embarrassment and economic harm, which, as noted above, are insufficient justifications for using a pseudonym. Moreover, at least two cases in this District have specifically held that diminished chances of acceptance into professional schools does not warrant anonymity.

Plaintiff's other arguments in favor of anonymity are similarly unavailing. For instance, Plaintiff asserts that her identity has remained largely confidential, that she may not continue with the case if this motion is denied, and that similarly situated individuals would be deterred from filing comparable suits. As this case involves alleged discriminatory conduct on the part of a university, the public has a strong interest in the outcome, and it would suffer were the case to terminate prematurely. Nonetheless, a plaintiff's "refusal to litigate openly by itself cannot outweigh the public's interest in open trials."

As for Plaintiff's contention regarding similarly situated plaintiffs, she offers no support for her position that such individuals would be dissuaded from vindicating their rights. Indeed,  there are numerous examples of plaintiffs bringing suits in their own names alleging that universities and school districts improperly accused them of cheating based on racial motives. Because Plaintiff's interests in litigating anonymously do not "sufficiently outweigh" the public interest in an open proceeding, her request to proceed under a pseudonym will be denied.

Defendant does not appear to dispute that the non-parties to this matter, A.R. and H.B., should be permitted to remain anonymous. The Court finds that these non-litigants have significant interests in remaining anonymous that are not outweighed by the public interest in an open judicial process. Plaintiff's request as to the non-party students will be granted, and these individuals will be respectively referred to by their initials, "H.B." and "A.R."

Congratulations to James Keller, Patrick Nugent, and Kruti Patel (Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP), who represent the university.