United States District Court, District of Columbia
Assign Date: 10/14/2015
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
RICHARD W. ROBERTS, Chief Judge
Plaintiff John Doe, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon, has submitted for filing a complaint alleging that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") and its officers improperly withheld information Doe requested under the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552(a) ("PA"), and the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 ("FOIA"). He moves ex parte for leave to file the complaint pseudonymously, arguing that publicly disclosing his name in potential litigation will expose him to reputational harm and potential retaliation, thereby jeopardizing his livelihood. Because Doe has not demonstrated that the court should exercise its discretion to depart from the practice calling for litigants to identify themselves by name in the case caption, his motion will be denied.
According to the plaintiff, he is a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon. In a series of FOIA/PA requests he filed with HHS, he asked without success for copies of documents about himself. He asserts that the documents he sought would likely contain false and defamatory records about him that could destroy his reputation, career, and hope of earning a living. Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Leave to File Pseudonymously at 2. He moves to file his complaint and proceed pseudonymously.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10, "[t]he title of the complaint must name all the parties[.]" Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a). Local Civil Rules 5.1(c) and 11.1 state that "[t]he first filing by or on behalf of a party shall have in the caption the name and full residence address of the party." LCvR 5.1(c)(1), 11.1. A party who seeks to file pseudonymously must obtain leave of court. See, e.g., Quails v. Rumsfeld, 228 F.R.D. 8, 10 (D.D.C. 2005) ("A litigant seeking to proceed under pseudonym may ask the Chief Judge, ex parte, for leave to file a complaint omitting the litigant's real name and full address. In effect, the litigant is asking the Chief Judge to waive the requirements of Federal Rule 10(a) and Local Civil Rules 5.1[(c)] (1) and 11.1."). "Leave is generally granted if the litigant makes a colorable argument in support of the request. If the Chief Judge grants leave to file, the litigant may then file a pseudonymous complaint and the case will be assigned to a judge just like any ordinary case" would be. Quails, 228 F.R.D. at 10.
Although the D.C. Circuit has yet to articulate a precise test for determining whether leave to file pseudonymously on a temporary basis is warranted, other courts have described the proper analysis as a balancing test weighing one party's need for anonymity against the public's right of access to court proceedings and the risk of unfairness to the opposing party. See, e.g., Does I thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d 1058, 1068 (9th Cir. 2000) (describing cases where courts of appeals have "held that a district court must balance the need for anonymity against the general presumption that parties' identities are public information and [against] the risk of unfairness to the opposing party."); accord Quails, 228 F.R.D. at 10. In Nat. Assoc, of Waterfront Employers v. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d 90 (D.D.C. 2008), the district court collected factors used by courts in weighing the competing interests at stake, given the presumption of access to judicial proceedings and the privacy interests of the individual. The factors the Chao court listed include:
(1) whether the justification asserted by the requesting party is merely to avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend any litigation or is to preserve privacy in a matter of a sensitive and highly personal nature;
(2) whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the requesting party or even more critically, to innocent non-parties;
(3) the ages of the persons whose privacy interests are sought to be protected;
(4) whether the action is against a governmental or private party; and
(5) the risk of unfairness to the opposing party from allowing an action against it to proceed anonymously.
Id. at 99 (footnotes omitted); accord Yaman v. U.S. Dep't ofState, 786 F.Supp.2d 148, 152-53 (D.D.C. 2011). No single factor is necessarily determinative; a court "should carefully review all the circumstances of a given case and then decide whether the customary practice of disclosing the plaintiff's identity should yield" to the ...