Update (July 28, 2017): A Minnesota lawyer and Hawaiian dance performer (along with her father) was allegedly spied on while changing costumes at a company party apparently hosted by Empire Entertainment, L.L.C., d/b/a The Pourhouse. Ew. If this person wants to bring a lawsuit in connection with this invasion of privacy, must she go forward under her own name, effectively publicizing a private and humiliating experience? Yes. So held the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court recently denied “Ms. Doe’s” petition for further review (here is Ms. Doe’s petition). It seems that our legal system adds injury to injury sometimes. On the other hand, as discussed in the original post below, allowing anonymity broadly in our public dispute resolution system (that is, our court system) poses its own risk of serious injury to innocent parties.
Original post (April 25, 2016): Savor the irony of an exhibitionist seeking to bring a lawsuit anonymously. Exquisite, is it not? “Mr. P” repeatedly and compulsively exhibits his private parts but, actually, he’s otherwise a very private person. So he hopes to conceal his name when suing his former employer for firing him on account of his exhibitionism?
We call this “chutzpah.”
Common sense dictates that the disclosure of the identity of this plaintiff is not protected by any statute or rule of court and would be no more detrimental than disclosure of the identity of the doctor accused of sexual impropriety in Coe v. United States District Court, 676 F.2d 411 (10th Cir. 1982), or of the alcoholic plaintiff in Doe v. Frank, 951 F.2d 320 (11th Cir. 1992). Cf. Clowes v. Terminix International, Inc., 109 N.J. 575, 538 A.2d 794 (1988) (plaintiff who successfully argued that alcoholism is a “handicap” under the LAD proceeded under his true name).
The referenced scenario (the case of the private exhibitionist) and quoted text are from a 1995 New Jersey case but the issue of who can bring a lawsuit anonymously continues to be an issue across the country.
Our state and federal court systems are open and public. That is the default rule throughout the United States. That is a bedrock premise of our justice system.
In Minnesota, I am unaware of any rule or law that permits filing a complaint anonymous as a matter of right. The Minnesota Rules of Juvenile Protection Procedure provide a mechanism for anonymity “if a party is endangered.” Minn. R. Juv. Protect. 21.03. But, though rules do not widely allow it, using “John Doe” or initials for some civil litigation plaintiffs is not uncommon in Minnesota. In fact, it is common in family law cases. Understandably so. The privacy interests can be immense; the public importance can be zero. And most of the time, no one objects — none of the litigants, no members of the press, and none of the public.
But there can be a significant problem and a risk in allowing civil litigants to cloak their identities in lawsuits.
Court pleadings are given absolute immunity. “Defamatory matter published in the due course of a judicial proceeding is absolutely privileged and will not support a civil action for defamation even if made maliciously and with knowledge of its falsehood.”
Combining absolute immunity with anonymity opens up our court system to the risk of terrible abuse. Out of despair, stupidity, or vindictiveness, a person could cause serious damage to the reputation of a business or another person. A person could use the court system for extortions without recourse. If our system casually allows people to use the court system to attack someone else’s reputation anonymously, the victim would have absolutely no legal recourse. The defamers would not even have their own reputations in play for their destructive and false accusations.