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I.A. v. Barr

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 11, 2019

I.A. et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WILLIAM BARR et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY J. KELLY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs in this action are thirteen individuals and one organization seeking to challenge the interim final rule “Asylum Eligibility and Procedural Modifications, ” 84 Fed. Reg. 33, 829, issued on July 16, 2019, by the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security. On August 21, 2019, the Court granted eight of those individual plaintiffs leave to proceed using pseudonyms. See ECF No. 2. On September 10, 2019, Plaintiffs amended their complaint, adding as plaintiffs five new individuals. Those individuals, each an asylum applicant or the minor child of an applicant currently in the United States, have moved for leave to proceed using pseudonyms on similar grounds. And they further request that the declarations they filed under seal in support of that motion remain sealed. Defendants do not oppose Plaintiffs' motion. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant it.

         I. Background

         The new individual plaintiffs are five persons from three different countries seeking asylum in the United States. They are comprised of four adults and one minor, all of whom entered the United States at the southern border after July 16, 2019. Each individual, in an accompanying declaration filed under seal, represents that he or she is fleeing threats of severe violence or death, and they all state that they would fear for their own safety and that of their families if their names were disclosed as a result of their participation in this lawsuit. Accordingly, Plaintiffs seek leave of Court for the new individual plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously. And they further request that the individual plaintiffs' declarations describing in more detail the grounds for their request remain under seal. As already noted, Defendants do not oppose Plaintiffs' motion.

         II. Legal Standard

         Generally, a complaint must state the names of the parties. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(a); LCvR 5.1(c)(1); LCvR 11.1. The public's interest “in knowing the names of . . . litigants” is critical because “disclosing the parties' identities furthers openness of judicial proceedings.” Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 273 (4th Cir. 2014); see also Nixon v. Warner Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978) (“[T]he courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” (footnotes omitted)). The Federal Rules thus promote a “presumption in favor of disclosure [of litigants' identities], which stems from the ‘general public interest in the openness of governmental processes,' and, more specifically, from the tradition of open judicial proceedings.” In re Sealed Case, 931 F.3d 92, 96 (D.C. Cir. 2019) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Wash. Legal Found. v. U.S. Sentencing Comm'n, 89 F.3d 897, 899 (D.C. Cir. 1996)).

         Nevertheless, courts have, in special circumstances, permitted a party to “proceed anonymously” when a court determines the need for “the plaintiffs anonymity” outweighs “the public interest in open proceedings” and considers the “fairness to the defendant.” Nat'l Ass'n of Waterfront Emp'rs v. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d 90, 99 (D.D.C. 2008). The D.C. Circuit has instructed that “the appropriate way to determine whether a litigant may proceed anonymously is to balance the litigant's legitimate interest in anonymity against countervailing interests in full disclosure.” In re Sealed Case, 931 F.3d at 96. When weighing those concerns, five factors, initially drawn from James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993), serve as “guideposts from which a court ought to begin its analysis.” In re Sealed Case, 931 F.3d at 97. These five factors are:

[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. (citing James, 6 F.3d at 238). And when the individual in question is a minor, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.2(a) provides that any filing presumptively may only include the minor's initials. See also LCvR 5.4(f)(2) (“If the involvement of a minor child must be mentioned, only the initials of that child should be used.”).

         Ultimately, whether to grant the “rare dispensation” of anonymity is within the discretion of the district court, provided that the court “inquire into the circumstances of [the] particular case[].” United States v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1464 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (quoting James, 6 F.3d at 238). This is not “a wooden exercise of ticking . . . boxes, ” but rather a case-specific approach that should “take into account other factors relevant to the particular” circumstances. In re Sealed Case, 931 F.3d at 97 (quoting Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 190 (2d Cir. 2008)).

         The D.C. Circuit has also instructed that, as a general matter, courts are to apply an analogous set of factors when determining whether court filings should be sealed from public view. See United States v. Hubbard, 650 F.2d 293, 317-22 (D.C. Cir. 1980). Those include: (1) the need for public access to the documents at issue; (2) the extent of previous public access to the documents; (3) the fact that someone has objected to disclosure, and the identity of that person; (4) the strength of any property and privacy interests asserted; (5) the possibility of prejudice to those opposing disclosure; and (6) the purposes for which the documents were introduced during the judicial proceedings.

         III. Analysis

         Upon consideration of Plaintiffs' motion and the supporting declarations, the Court finds that they have met their burden of showing that their privacy interests outweigh the public's presumptive and substantial interest in knowing the details of this litigation. Furthermore, the Court concludes that the declarations submitted in support of Plaintiffs' motion should remain under seal.

         The new individual plaintiffs maintain that the facts underlying their claims involve “sensitive and highly personal” information, such that their names should not be exposed to the public. ECF No. 24 (“Pl.'s Mot.”) at 1 (quoting Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d at 99). Furthermore, they explain that their identities are particularly sensitive because they “face a significant risk of ...


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