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Tolton v. Day

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 7, 2019

NILAB RAHYAR TOLTON et al., Plaintiffs,
JONES DAY, Defendant,



         Plaintiffs, six lawyers, bring this action against their former employer, Defendant Jones Day. Plaintiffs allege, among other things, that Jones Day discriminated against them based on their gender, including by denying them opportunities for advancement, depriving them of equal pay, subjecting them to a hostile work environment, wrongfully terminating or constructively discharging them, and retaliating against them. The question now before the Court has nothing to do with the merits of the suit but, rather, requires the Court to decide whether one of the six plaintiffs, "Doe 4." may proceed under a pseudonym until October 1, 2019.

         At the time Plaintiffs filed suit, four of the six plaintiffs ("Does 1-4") moved to proceed pseudonymously. Chief Judge Howell granted that motion "subject to any further consideration by the United States District Judge to whom this case is randomly assigned." Dkt. 2. After the case was assigned, the Court concluded that the reasons set forth in Chief Judge Howell's memorandum and opinion were sufficient, at least for the initial stages of the proceedings, to permit Does 1-4 to proceed pseudonymously. Minute Order (Apr. 9, 2019). Jones Day subsequently moved to compel the four anonymous plaintiffs to disclose their identities, Dkt. 12 at 21, and the Court ordered those plaintiffs who wished to continue to proceed anonymously to provide additional evidence in support of their request for that relief In response, all but one of the Doe plaintiffs abandoned their requests for anonymous treatment, and Plaintiffs subsequently filed an amended complaint revealing the identities of Does 1-3. Doe 4, however, seeks leave to proceed undera pseudonym until October 1, 2019. Dkt. 35-2 at 1 (XXXXX).

         For the reasons explained below, the Court will DENY Doe 4's request for continued, pseudonymous treatment. Because this opinion discusses certain private information relating to (XXXXX), however, the Court will file the opinion under seal and will provide counsel for the parties with the opportunity to propose redactions before the Court files a public version of the opinion, I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Inherent in our judicial system is a '"customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness," United States v, Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1464 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (quoting Doe v. Stegatt, 653 F.2d 180, 186 (5th Cir. 1981)). The "right of public access"extends to the names of litigants because disclosing parties' identities "furthers [the] openness of judicial proceedings." Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 270, 273 (4th Cir. 2014). Consistent with this transparency, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and this Court's Local Civil Rules require that complaints set forth the names of parties, Fed, R. Civ. P. 10(a); LCvRs 5.1(c)(1), 11.1.

         The D.C Circuit only recently "provided clear guidance as to when a [plaintiff] may proceed anonymously." In re Sealed Case, No. 17-1212, 2019 WL 3367999, at * 3 (D.C Cir. July 26, 2019). Stated at the most general level, courts must "balance the litigant's legitimate interest in anonymity against countervailing interests in full disclosure." Id. Courts must do so, however, against the backdrop of the "presumption in favor of disclosure, which stems from the 'general public interest in the openness of governmental processes."' Id. (quoting Wash. Legal Found, v. U.S. Sentencing Comm'n, 89 F.3d 897, 899 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). The following five factors "serve well as guideposts from which a court ought to begin its analysis"

[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, relatedly,
[5] the risk of unfairness to the opposing party from allowing an action against it to proceed anonymously.

Id. at * 4. But those factors are just guideposts- District courts "should not.. . engage in a wooden exercise of ticking the" boxes identified with any particular test. Id. Instead, it is the responsibility of the district court to evaluate each case on its individual facts and to assess "whether the non-speculative privacy interests that the movant[] . . . identifies] outweigh the public's substantial interest in knowing the identities of parties in litigation" and "any legitimate interest that the non-moving parties[] . . . may have in revealing the identity of the movant[, ]" John Doe Company No. 1 v. Consumer Fin. Protection Bur., 195 F. Supp, 3d 9, 17 (D.D.C. 2016).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Before turning to the five-factor test, the Court considers Doe 4's contention that the presumption in favor of disclosure applies with less force here than in the typical case for two reasons: First, revealing Doe 4's identity will "deter other similarly situated litigants from" filing suit. Dkt. 24 at 20. Second, the public interest in knowing who is engaged in litigation before a federal court is satisfied -at least in large part-by the disclosure of the identity of the other five plaintiffs. See id, at 19-20. Although these considerations are not irrelevant, they do not meaningfully diminish the public interest in disclosure, First, Doe 4's contention that the public interest in favor of disclosure is tempered in this case because disclosing Doe 4's identity would have a chilling effect on other, similarly-situated litigants, proves too much. Doe 4 does not contend that her decision to participate in this suit hinges on her ability to maintain her anonymity, and her contention that disclosure in this case might affect the decisions of putative ...

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