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Free Speech

No Pseudonymity for College Student Alleging Racist Mistreatment by Baseball Coach

"There is an inherent inequality in allowing an accuser to proceed pseudonymously while the defendant is forced to defend himself publicly."


From Chief Judge Michael Urbanski's opinion today in Doe v. Kuhn (W.D. Va.), the allegations from the Complaint:

John Doe was recruited to play baseball for Radford University … by Radford's former baseball coach, Joe Raccuia, who was replaced by Kuhn prior to Doe's matriculation. Doe found many of Kuhn's actions objectionable, such as: grouping the lockers of minority players, such as Doe, together; informing all players that they were required to stand during the national anthem in order to remain in good standing; directing only the players of color to get haircuts prior to team pictures; prohibiting players from attending a racial justice rally on campus; referring to an Asian American player on the team as "Kim Chi," rather than by his name; and assisting white players in finding summer league placements, but not assisting Doe. Kuhn did not play Doe in any baseball games during the 2020-2021 season.

Doe was directed to inform Kuhn of his ongoing mental health concerns and believed Kuhn responded inappropriately to his disclosure. Doe then reported this and the previous incidents to Radford's athletic department. Kuhn subsequently asked Doe whether Doe had lodged a complaint against him. When Doe's parents became involved, Kuhn urged them to disenroll Doe from Radford and stated, in front of others, that "these parents want me fired." Several days later, Kuhn took the players out of earshot of other athletic staff members to "curse them out."

Despite assurance from Radford's athletic director that Doe would not face retaliation for raising concerns about Kuhn, Doe was taken off the active lineup, prohibited from participating in live at-back [sic] practice, and prevented from traveling with the team.

During this period, Doe had discussions with Kuhn and an assistant Athletic Director about preserving a year of playing eligibility by "red-shirting" since Doe had not yet played in a game.

Doe and a dozen other baseball players met with an assistant Athletic Director at Radford to discuss Kuhn under the belief that the meeting was confidential. However, Doe believes the substance of the meeting was shared with Kuhn shortly thereafter. On the very day Radford informed Doe and his peers that the university would neither investigate nor take action against Kuhn, Kuhn told the players: "You thought you were going to get me fired, but I'm not going anywhere." Kuhn then ordered Doe into the game, causing Doe to lose his opportunity to red-shirt.

Within days, Kuhn cut Doe and another African American member of the team, causing Doe to lose his scholarship and forcing Doe to withdraw from Radford if he hoped to continue playing baseball. Doe transferred to another college, but did not secure the same scholarship amount, increasing his net cost of university attendance by approximately $100,000….

The court noted the strong presumption in favor of parties proceeding under their own names, and concluded this presumption wasn't rebutted here:

Doe argues that … he seeks to "preserve privacy [o a sensitive and high personal nature: his academic records, which are subject to federal law regarding their confidentiality, and his medical condition." … [But] "[c]ases involving mental health issues routinely proceed without concealing the identity of the Plaintiff." To warrant anonymity, the mental health concern must be particularly exceptional and stigmatizing. [Citing case] (collecting cases in which courts denied requests to proceed pseudonymously involving obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions). Cases allowing anonymity to protect mental health and academic records often involve allegations of sexual misconduct, a factor that is absent here….

Doe further states that identifying him "risks retaliation from Defendants and others for pursuing vindication of his Constitutional rights." While Doe alleges that Kuhn retaliated against him for lodging complaints about Kuhn's conduct as coach, the two have had no contact since departing Radford and now live several states away from one another. At the hearing on June 27, 2023, Doe voiced concern about potential retaliation in the form of lost playing opportunities from the insular collegiate baseball community.

The risk of retaliation here is insufficient to warrant proceeding via pseudonym. Fear of humiliation and embarrassment or the threat of economic harm, especially when unsubstantiated, are not a sufficient reason to grant a motion to proceed pseudonymously….

Finally, Doe argues that "[t]he risks [of allowing Doe to proceed pseudonymously] to [Kuhn] are minimal, as [Kuhn is] already aware of [ ] Doe's identity." Kuhn retorts that it is "grossly unfair that Plaintiff can level allegations" of this type against him because, if the case continues, "there will be a record of the allegations against [Kuhn] while the Plaintiff walks away anonymously." The court finds Kuhn's concerns persuasive.

In Doe v. N. Carolina Cent. Univ. (M.D.N.C. 1999), permitting the plaintiff to proceed under a pseudonym would have forced the defendant to "defend itself publicly while plaintiff could use her privacy interests as a shelter from which she can safely hurl these accusations without subjecting herself to public scrutiny." Furthermore, in Candidate No. 452207 v. CFA Inst. (E.D. Va. 2012), the court held that "permitting Plaintiff to assert his claims against" the defendant "without having to disclose his name would invite meritless lawsuits from other" similarly situated plaintiffs, "offering them a forum to tarnish the reputation of the [defendant] without risk of harm to their own reputation." There is an inherent inequality in allowing an accuser to proceed pseudonymously while the defendant is forced to defend himself publicly….