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Sandberg v. Vincent

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 9, 2018




         Defendant Nathaniel Vincent requests leave to proceed pseudonymously in a civil case against him for alleged sexual assault and related claims. Plaintiff Emma Sandberg opposes this motion. Although the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (“D.C. Circuit”) has not expressly adopted a test for evaluating such a request, courts in this Circuit have often applied a five-factor test in cases involving plaintiffs' motions to proceed under pseudonyms. The Court finds no reason not to apply this test to such a motion by Defendant, who nevertheless is unable to prevail. Upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record as a whole, in an exercise of the Court's discretion, the Court shall DENY Defendant's [6] Motion to Proceed Under Pseudonym.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court shall draw on the allegations in the [1] Complaint for the few factual details pertinent to this motion. During the summer of 2017, Plaintiff, then a seventeen-year-old rising high school senior, worked as an intern in the District of Columbia. Compl., ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 6, 12. Defendant, then a rising college sophomore, also lived in the District at the time. Id. ¶ 10. On July 22, 2017, Plaintiff met Defendant, who had been invited to Plaintiff's apartment by her roommates. Id. ¶¶ 11, 14. At the end of an evening of drinking games with other guests, Defendant allegedly pressured Plaintiff to drink further alcohol and allegedly carried her to a bedroom in her apartment, where he allegedly engaged in sexual intercourse with her without her consent. Id. ¶¶ 11, 13, 15, 17, 24-31.

         On Plaintiff's behalf, her father brought this action against Defendant, seeking damages for allegations of 1) sexual assault and battery, and 2) negligence and gross negligence. Id. ¶¶ 33-41. Plaintiff has since attained the age of majority and has been substituted for her father as the real party in interest in this case. See Min. Order of Aug. 9, 2018.

         Defendant has sought to proceed in this case under pseudonym, which the Court instructed the parties to brief. Def.'s Mot.; Min. Order of May 7, 2018. Upon the conclusion of briefing, the Court held a teleconference on the record on June 14, 2018, in order to gather further information pertinent to Defendant's motion. Min. Order of June 14, 2018. Of note, Plaintiff's counsel indicated that there is a report prepared by the District of Columbia Department of Forensic Sciences that identifies the parties by name. Defendant's counsel represented that although Defendant was again living and working as a summer intern in the District of Columbia at the time of the teleconference, he does not attend college in the District.


         “Although it is within the discretion of the district court to grant the ‘rare dispensation' of anonymity against the world (but not the plaintiff), even in that situation the court has ‘a judicial duty to inquire into the circumstances of particular cases to determine whether the dispensation is warranted.'” United States v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1464 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (quoting James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993)). The D.C. Circuit has indicated that district courts considering requests for pseudonyms should evaluate both the likelihood of any unfairness to the non-movant and the presumption of transparency vis-à-vis the public. Id. (citing S. Methodist Univ. Ass'n of Women Law Students v. Wynne & Jaffe, 599 F.2d 707, 713 (5th Cir. 1979); Doe v. Stegall, 653 F.2d 180, 186 (5th Cir. 1981) (“customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings”)).

         The D.C. Circuit's Microsoft ruling made clear, at the least, “that courts must be prepared to thoroughly analyze motions that would permit parties to remain anonymous throughout the course of litigation.” Doe v. Teti, No. 1:15-mc-01380, 2015 WL 6689862, at *1 n.1 (D.D.C. Oct. 19, 2015) (citing Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448). In the absence of a detailed standard from the D.C. Circuit, courts in this Circuit have often deployed the following test articulated in the Fourth Circuit's James decision, which the Microsoft Court had cited approvingly:

[1] [W]hether 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 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.

James, 6 F.3d at 238; see also, e.g., Yacovelli v. Moeser, No. 02-596, 2004 WL 1144183, at *6 (M.D. N.C. May 20, 2004) (quoting James, 6 F.3d at 238); Nat'l Ass'n of Waterfront Emp'rs v. Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d 90, 99 (D.D.C. 2008) (citing Yacovelli, No. 02-596, 2004 WL 1144183, at *6-8); Roe v. Bernabei & Wachtel PLLC, 85 F.Supp.3d 89, 96 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting Chao, 587 F.Supp.2d at 99). “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 [movant's] identity should yield' to the [movant's] request for anonymity.” Teti, No. 1:15-mc-01380, 2015 WL 6689862, at *2 (quoting Doe v. Frank, 951 F.2d 320, 323 (11th Cir. 1992) (discussing Fifth Circuit's standard in Stegall)).

         “Pseudonymous litigation is for the unusual or critical case, and it is the litigant seeking to proceed under pseudonym that bears the burden to demonstrate a legitimate basis for proceeding in that manner.” Qualls v. Rumsfeld, 228 F.R.D. 8, 13 (D.D.C. 2005).


         This Court shall join others in this Circuit that apply the five-factor James test. The James factors reflect the high standard for granting anonymity and account for the fairness and transparency considerations that the D.C. Circuit requires. Application of these factors to the present case shall demonstrate that Defendant has not ...

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