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N.W. v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 31, 2016

J.W., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant. Re Document No. 2

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS United States District Judge

         Granting Plaintiffs' Motion to Proceed Anonymously

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs, [1] M.W. and N.W., on behalf of their minor son, J.W., move to proceed anonymously in this Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”) case. See Pls.' Mot. Proceed Anonymously, ECF No. 2. Plaintiffs claim that the disclosure of their full names and their address would indirectly impact their son's privacy interests because J.W.'s identity is inherently linked to his parents' identities. See Pls.' Mem. P. & A. Supp. Mot. Proceed Anonymously, ECF No. 2 [hereinafter Pls.' Mem. Supp.]. The District of Columbia agreed not to oppose Plaintiffs' motion, but disagrees that permitting Plaintiffs to proceed anonymously is legally supportable in this case. Def.'s Notice Clarif., ECF No. 8; see Def.'s Opp'n Pls.' Mot.

         Proceed Anonymously, ECF No. 7 [hereinafter Def.'s Opp'n]. After weighing the competing interests involved, the Court will grant Plaintiffs' motion to proceed anonymously.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are the parents of J.W., a nine-year-old student as of March 2016. Compl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 1. J.W. has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, but his parents allege that he should also be diagnosed with Specific Learning Disorders in reading, math, and writing and receive special education services consistent with that additional diagnosis. Id. ¶¶ 7, 28, 30. On March 28, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a Complaint against the District alleging that the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) failed to provide J.W. with the free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) required by the IDEA. Id. ¶¶ 1, 132-35. A Hearing Officer denied all of the relief Plaintiffs sought, and Plaintiffs therefore also challenge the Hearing Officer's determination. Id. ¶¶ 1, 136-38.

         At the same time that they filed their Complaint, Plaintiffs filed a motion to proceed anonymously, requesting that all parties refer to them using only their initials (M.W. and N.W.), and that all parties redact Plaintiffs' address in all filings and pleadings. See Pls.' Mem. Supp. ¶ 9. In support of their motion, Plaintiffs claim that “[m]aintaining the confidentiality of this information would be in the best interest of the student.” Id. ¶ 6. Although Plaintiffs' motion states that the District “indicated that it will not oppose this motion, ” id. ¶ 10, after the Court issued a minute order on May 23, 2016 directing the District to state its position on the motion, the District filed an opposition to Plaintiffs' motion to proceed anonymously, see generally Def.'s Opp'n. In its opposition, the District claims that allowing Plaintiffs to proceed anonymously “is not the appropriate decision in balancing the traditional interest of ensuring public access to judicial documents with the minor student's interest in privacy.” Id. at 1. The District later clarified its position, explaining that, while the District agreed to not oppose Plaintiffs' motion, it disagrees with Plaintiffs' legal analysis. Def.'s Notice Clarif. at 1.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Legal Standard

         One of the defining characteristics of American judicial proceedings is the right of public access. See Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978) (“It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” (footnotes omitted)). In furtherance of this public interest, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint include the names of all the parties, Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a); accord D.D.C. Local Civ. R. 5.1(c)(1) (same), and that all civil actions be “prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest, ” see Fed. R. Civ. P. 17. The presumption of public access may be overcome, however, “by an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Nat'l Ass'n of Waterfront Emp'rs v. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d 90, 98 (D.D.C. 2008) (quoting Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. v. U.S. Dist. Court, 156 F.3d 940, 949 (9th Cir. 1998)).

         Although the D.C. Circuit has not yet delineated a formal test for determining when a party may proceed anonymously, courts in this district generally apply the five-factor test set forth in National Ass'n of Waterfront Employers v. Chao when weighing the moving party's and the public's competing interests. See 587 F.Supp.2d at 99; see also, e.g., Doe v. Cabrera, 307 F.R.D. 1, 5 (D.D.C. 2014); Doe v. Von Eschenbach, No. 06-2131, 2007 WL 1848013, at *2 (D.D.C. June 27, 2007); accord James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993) (considering the same factors). The five factors of the Chao test 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 ...

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