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Eley v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

October 25, 2016

WILMA ELEY, et al., Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          G. MICHAEL HARVEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter has been referred to the undersigned for full case management. Before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for leave to proceed anonymously. The motion is ripe for resolution. Upon consideration of the parties' briefs and the entire record herein, [1] the Court will grant the motion.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs allege that they are parents of children eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. (“IDEA”). Am. Compl., ¶ 2. They claim to have prevailed in IDEA litigation and therefore seek payment of their attorney's fees and costs under that statute's fee shifting provision. Id., ¶¶ 3, 10-13.

         Appended to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint is a table purporting to list the fees incurred in obtaining relief in six Hearing Officer's Decisions related to four students. Am. Compl. App'x. The table also identifies the parents of three of the students by their initials. Id. Plaintiff D.B. is the parent of the student D.B., Plaintiff M.G. is the parent of the student K.H., and Plaintiff T.U. is the parent of the student T.U. Id. The instant dispute focuses on whether those parents should be permitted to proceed anonymously in this action.

         DISCUSSION

         The public has a right of access to civil cases that is grounded in the First Amendment. Nat'l Ass'n of Waterfront Employers v. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d 90, 98 (D.D.C. 2008); see also Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc. 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978). That right informs Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a), which requires that a plaintiff name all parties in a complaint. Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a). The public right of access can come into conflict with important competing privacy interests, however. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d at 98. In such an instance, it is within the discretion of a court to grant the “rare dispensation” of anonymity, subject to the requirement that a court “inquire into the circumstances of [a] particular case[].” United States v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1464 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). In considering such a request, a court must balance a party's reasons for wanting to proceed anonymously against the public interest and the public right of access, as well as any unfairness anonymity might work on the opposing party. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d at 99. While encroachment upon the right of access may be required “to preserve higher values, ” it must be “narrowly tailored” to that end. Id. at 98 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         This Court generally applies a five-part test to balance the concerns of plaintiffs seeking anonymity with those of defendants and the public interest. J.W. v. District of Columbia, Civ. Act. No. 16-0573 (RC), 2016 WL 4543993, at *2 (D.D.C. Aug. 31, 2016). That test is:

(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 ...

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