When May a Plaintiff Proceed Anonymously?

Doe v. Megless, ___ F.3d ___ (3d Cir. 2011).  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires that the title of a complaint “name all the parties.”  Despite that, in exceptional circumstances, courts have allowed plaintiffs to file complaints using “John Doe” or the like instead of their real names.  This decision, written by Judge Fisher, represents the Third Circuit’s first discussion of when a plaintiff may do that.  The panel affirmed a district court decision that this plaintiff had no right to proceed anonymously. 

The case arose because defendants, who were public officials, issued an e-mail and a flyer that used plaintiff’s real name, picture, home address, driver’s license number, and a description of his car, with its license plate number.  Defendants stated that plaintiff “has been known to hang around schools,” and that although he “has not approached any kids at this point, [his] mental state is unknown.  If seen stop and investigate.”   

Plaintiff alleged that defendants had thereby violated his civil rights by, among other things, depriving him of freedom of movement and violating his privacy.  Plaintiff charged that defendants’ communication was intended to “characterize him as a dangerous and potentially mentally unstable pedophile.”

Plaintiff moved for the right to proceed anonymously.  The district court denied that motion and stated that plaintiff’s complaint would be dismissed with prejudice if he did not file a complaint with his true name.  When plaintiff declined to do that, the complaint was dismissed.  Plaintiff appealed, and the Third Circuit affirmed both the dismissal and the ruling about proceeding anonymously.

Judge Fisher stated that the abuse of discretion standard of review applied to decisions about proceeding anonymously.  Court proceedings should ordinarily be public, and both defendants and the public have a right to know who is using the courts.  Permitting a plaintiff to proceed anonymously happens only in “exceptional cases,” such as those involving “abortion, birth control, transexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS, and homosexuality.”

The circumstances here did not qualify.  “That a plaintiff may suffer embarrassment or economic harm is not enough.  Instead, a plaintiff must show ‘both (1) a fear of severe harm, and (2) that the fear of severe harm is reasonable.'” 

Judge Fisher observed that courts in other Circuits had developed somewhat varying, though largely similar, lists of criteria for determining, in essence, whether a plaintiff has a reasonable fear of severe harm that outweighs the public’s interest in open litigation.  The panel decided to adopt the lengthy set of criteria contained in Doe v. Provident Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 176 F.R.D. 464, 467 (E.D. Pa. 1997), a decision relied on by a number of district courts in the Third Circuit, including the District of New Jersey.  Under those criteria, plaintiff was not entitled to anonymity.  Plaintiff’s refusal to proceed with his case without anonymity justified dismissal of the complaint with prejudice.