No Pseudonymity in Case Alleging Disability Discrimination Based on “Major Depressive Disorder”

Plaintiff John Doe, proceeding pro se, filed this civil action on May 31, 2022 Plaintiff alleges that she was dismissed from Defendant Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine due to mental health problems following a traumatic brain injury. More specifically, Plaintiff claims that she suffered from major depressive disorder that prevented her from meeting certain program requirements and that Defendant Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine failed to provide instruction and make appropriate accommodations for her. [Plaintiff sued for disability discrimination and other claims. -EV]

In order to protect the public interest in judicial proceedings, there is a general understanding that an action should be brought in the name of the real party involved. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that the identity of the parties to a lawsuit be disclosed. see Fed. And. CV. P. 10(a) (“The title of the complaint must state the names of all parties …”); Fed. And. CV. P. 17(a) (requiring that an action “be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest”). As such, when a party seeks to litigate pseudonymously, the court must ensure that “exceptional circumstances justify such a request by balancing the party’s stated interest in anonymity against the public interest in disclosure and any prejudice to the opposing party in anonymity.” In making this decision, the court should consider:

[1] Whether the justification asserted by the requesting party is merely to avoid vexation and criticism which may attend a suit or to preserve confidentiality in matters of a sensitive and highly personal nature; [2] whether the identification creates a risk of retaliatory physical or emotional harm to the requesting party or, more critically, to innocent non-parties; [3] the age of individuals whose privacy interests are sought to be protected; [4] whether the action is against a public or private party; And [5] Risk of unfairness to the opposing party from allowing an action against it to proceed anonymously.

Courts must consider all the circumstances of the case as well as these factors to decide whether the customary practice of disclosing the plaintiff’s identity would be linked to the plaintiff’s privacy concerns.

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Courts have found exceptional circumstances and allowed pseudonyms in cases of abortion, birth control, transsexuality, serious mental illness, illegitimate children, HIV/AIDS, and homosexuality. Nevertheless, “[c]Mental health matters proceed routinely without the plaintiff’s anonymity.” …

[T]He finds unsettled that the circumstances herein do not support plaintiff’s proceeding in pseudonymous…

First, the undersigned must consider whether the justification claimed by the plaintiff is to avoid vexation and criticism or to protect privacy in matters of a sensitive and highly personal nature. As to this factor, plaintiff argues that this case requires him to disclose “numerous extreme intimate medical problems, both medical and psychological.” Defendants do not dispute that this information is sensitive and highly personal. Rather, Defendants argue that “Plaintiff has already filed two lawsuits against Defendants under her real name, and filed suit through a settlement motion. Plaintiff’s identity, and her real name, have already been published multiple times. Public records Regarding the claim brought by the plaintiff in this suit against these defendants Defendants assert that Plaintiffs “cannot now assert a need for protection in a third iteration of this case based on an alleged concern. [for] Privacy.” In response, Plaintiff states that “it is true that Plaintiff has previously filed in state court,” but it appears that this will not affect her request to proceed anonymously in federal court. Plaintiff reiterates that “[n]Nothing is more personal to a person suffering from a medical condition than their protected medical information.”

Based on these arguments, the undersigned finds that the first James The factor weighs in favor of the plaintiff, but little. While the undersigned acknowledges that plaintiff’s alleged medical and psychological conditions are indeed sensitive and personal, the fact that many—if not all—of these matters have previously been disclosed in state court militates against the need to protect plaintiff’s privacy. Indeed, Plaintiff fails to specify why his federal case involves more privacy concerns than his state court case. Further, the plaintiff may, to the extent necessary, file a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) and/or District of South Carolina Local Civil Rule 5.03 to prevent public disclosure of the medical records or particularly personal information; Proceeding pseudonymously is not the only way a plaintiff can protect sensitive information.

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With respect to the second James Factor—whether identification creates a risk of retaliatory physical or emotional harm to the plaintiff or innocent non-party—the undersigned finds that this factor weighs against pseudonymity. As noted, Plaintiff acknowledges that he has filed a similar suit in state court, and that Defendants are aware of his identity. Accordingly, a pseudonym would serve little purpose in preventing retaliatory behavior

Further, Plaintiff’s primary concern about her anonymity appears to be the impact this lawsuit will have on her future career prospects and professional relationships, not the potential for retaliatory physical or emotional harm. Although the undersigned is sympathetic to the plaintiff’s situation, presumptive reputational or economic harm is not equivalent to fear of retaliatory physical or mental harm…. [C]We consistently decline anonymous requests to prevent speculative and unsubstantiated claims of reputational or economic harm.

As plaintiffs contend that “[i]dentification posture [a] Risk of emotional harm to plaintiffs and innocent non-parties”[n]No one other than Plaintiff’s physician knows of her condition, not even her family,” the undersigned finds that this concern does not outweigh the considerations described above. The undersigned again sympathizes with Plaintiff, but reiterates that Plaintiff’s identity is already tied to the claims she has raised. The state court case-claims that plaintiffs do not dispute are sufficient as to the issues raised here, namely, that pseudonymity in this case does nothing to prevent retaliatory physical or emotional harm.

Moving on to the third James Factor, the age of the plaintiff also cuts against the pseudonym. Plaintiff is not a minor entitled to special protection based on age. Plaintiffs are concerned about “medical information.” [that] may have[] Highly sensitive, intimate and confidential information [from] while he was a minor,” the undersigned reiterates that the plaintiff may specifically request that personal medical information be sealed or protected.

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Fourth James The factor weighs in favor of revealing the plaintiff’s identity. “The Fourth Circuit has recognized a greater public interest in disclosure of party identity where the case involves a government agency.” Although not all defendants in these cases are government entities, several are (That is, Medical University of South Carolina; Medical University of South Carolina Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine). Regardless, “the mere fact that [a] The fact that litigation involves private parties does not mean that proceeding in pseudonymity is automatically favored.”

As to the risk of unfairness to the defendants in allowing this action to proceed pseudonymously, the risk is minimal. Defendants contend that allowing plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously would be prejudicial because “a future student aggrieved by the school’s disciplinary action could bring suit against MUSC and [the College of Medicine] for the same without revealing their identity” and “[a] MUSC and the litany of meritless lawsuits against it [the College of Medicine] will undoubtedly prejudice the defendants[‘] The state is renowned as an important medical institution Although the undersigned agrees that meritless suits may affect the reputation of defendants, the undersigned do not see how a pseudonymous plaintiff in this case would increase the likelihood of such a meritless suit.

Regardless, on balance, [factors cited above] Weigh against a pseudonymous plaintiff proceeding. As the district court previously noted, “it is reasonable to expect a person exercising court jurisdiction to set aside some of his privacy. Many statutes, such as the ADA […] A plaintiff needs to be set aside [] Confidentiality and disclosure of information that he [] might otherwise wish to remain confidential.” This case simply does not present the type of “exceptional circumstances” or “compelling concerns regarding personal privacy or privacy” that warrant pseudonymity….

For more on when courts have permitted or disallowed pseudonyms to protect plaintiffs alleging various mental illnesses or mental conditions, see Law of Pseudonym Casespp. 1437-41.

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