OPRA Plaintiff Cannot Proceed Anonymously

A.A. v. Gramiccioni, 442 N.J. Super. 276 (App. Div. 2015).  It is unusual for a plaintiff to be permitted to use only initials in filing a complaint.  As Judge Simonelli explained in this opinion, “[a]bsent a statute or court rule mandating anonymity in court proceedings, a litigant must show good cause to proceed anonymously or by pseudonym.”  Here, A.A., a requestor of records under the Open Public Records Act, N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13 (“OPRA”), filed suit using only his initials.  The Law Division dismissed the case sua sponte because OPRA cases must be filed on a summary basis under Rule 4:67, with an order to show cause and a verified complaint, and plaintiff did not provide either of those papers.  The Law Division also ruled that plaintiff could not proceed anonymously.  A.A. appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed.

On the first issue, Judge Simonelli observed that OPRA expressly requires lawsuits to “proceed in a summary or expedited manner.”  Accordingly, plaintiff was required to follow Rule 4:67 and proceed by order to show cause with a verified complaint.  He did not do so, and the Law Division properly dismissed the case.

The anonymity issue required more discussion.  “Unlike other statutes, where the Legislature has expressly permitted litigants in certain types of matters to proceed anonymously, the Legislature has not granted that right to OPRA requestors.”  Absent such authorization by statute or court rule, or “some compelling reason,” a party will not be permitted to proceed anonymously or by pseudonym.  A plaintiff has the burden to show “good cause” for proceeding in those ways.  The proper procedure is for the plaintiff to file a non-anonymous complaint and then move under Rule 1:38-11 to seal all or parts of the record.  That rule calls for a demonstration of “compelling circumstances.”  A plaintiff may not, as A.A. did, “unilaterally assume[ ]” that he or she has a right to anonymity.

Judge Simonelli cited a number of purposes for the principle that anonymity is not favored.  Among other things, the identity of a litigant may bear on such important matters as jurisdiction, issue preclusion, claim preclusion, attorney conflict of interest, enforcement or a compliance with court orders, and sanctions.  With respect to common law right of access claims, the court often has to balance the plaintiff’s claim of an overriding need for the records against the government’s interests opposing turnover.”

A.A. offered no reason, let alone a compelling one, why he should have been able to proceed anonymously or by pseudonym.  Accordingly, the Law Division’s ruling on that issue was correct.