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Anonymity in Lawsuit Maintained; Removal to Federal Court Denied

New York Law Journal, July 15, 2016
By Adam Shaw

Among the noteworthy decisions issued this past quarter by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York are a decision by Judge Lawrence E. Kahn addressing when it is proper to maintain a lawsuit anonymously and a decision by Judge David N. Hurd remanding contempt proceedings to state court.

Anonymity in Lawsuit

In John Doe v. Colgate University,1 District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn evaluated the propriety of maintaining a lawsuit anonymously under a fake name. There, the plaintiff, a student athlete, brought a federal claim for due process violations under Title IX and state common law claims relating to the university's investigation of sexual assault allegations against him and his suspension weeks prior to graduation. The plaintiff then moved to be allowed to maintain the action under the pseudonym "John Doe" rather than use his real name.

Under Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, complaints must name all the parties. The rule promotes the principle that judicial proceedings are open to public scrutiny. According to the court, parties seeking to proceed anonymously will only be allowed to do so if their private interests outweigh the public interest in full disclosure.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendants, 537 F.3d 185 (2d Cir. 2008) listed the factors to consider: "(1) whether the litigation involves matters that are highly sensitive and of a personal nature; (2) whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the party seeking to proceed anonymously or to other innocent non-parties; (3) whether identification poses other harms and the likely severity of those harms; (4) whether the plaintiff is particularly vulnerable to the harms resulting from disclosure; (5) whether the suit is challenging the actions of the government or that of private parties; (6) whether the defendant would be prejudiced by allowing the plaintiff to proceed anonymously, whether the nature of any prejudice differs at any stage of litigation, and whether any prejudice can be mitigated by the district court; (7) whether the plaintiff's identity has thus far been kept confidential; (8) whether the public's interest in the litigation is furthered by requiring the plaintiff to disclose his identity; (9) the relative strength of the public interest in knowing the litigants' identities based on the purely legal nature of the issues presented; and (10) whether there are any alternative mechanisms for protecting the confidentiality of the plaintiff."

While the standard is several years old, the court noted that there are numerous cases of recent vintage involving investigations of sexual abuse on campuses that gained significant media attention and presented potential reputational harm to the parties. Indeed, the court noted that recent procedural guidelines for conducting investigations from the U.S. Department of Education increased attention and ligation over campus sexual assault investigations. According to the court, protecting the anonymity of victims and the accused can help safeguard the due process rights that are supposed to be an integral part of the investigative process.

Evaluating the factors, the court found that many recent cases across the country have allowed anonymous filings under similar circumstances partly due to the highly sensitive and personal nature of such litigation.

The court also found that disclosing the plaintiff's identity could harm the plaintiff by exacerbating his reputational injury if the charges were unfounded or if the investigative proceedings were unfair. Disclosure could also undermine the fairness and impartiality of the current proceedings, the court explained, by causing an undue focus on the epidemic problem of sexual assault as opposed to the specific merits of the case. According to the court, in contrast, non-anonymity would not advance any litigation goals, but could lead to unnecessary ridicule and attention, which in turn could chill future plaintiffs from exercising their legal rights.

 

The court also found that the university would not be prejudiced by anonymous proceedings because it is aware of the plaintiff's "true identity and will have an uninhibited opportunity to litigate this matter regardless of whether plaintiff's identity is disclosed publicly." The court also rejected the defendant's argument that the plaintiff undermined his anonymity by contacting the press about his case. The court found that the resulting news never named the plaintiff and, while the press coverage was not supportive of plaintiff's position, it did not create an overwhelming public interest.

Ultimately, the court allowed the plaintiff to proceed under a pseudonym because the interest in anonymity outweighed both the public interest in disclosure and any prejudice to the defendant. According to the court, "particularly in the context of investigating allegations of sexual assault on college campuses, it is imperative that the rights of all the parties involved be thoroughly protected in order to properly adjudicate these claims."

Removal Issue

In Amcat Global v. Stephen L. Yonaty, Greater Binghamton Development and Rogers Service Group,2 District Judge David N. Hurd rejected Greater Binghamton Development, LLC's (GBD) attempt to remove state-court efforts to hold it in contempt to federal court.

GBD was sued and lost a state court contract action relating to its failure to pay over $1 million to Amcat Global for cleaning up mud and water damage at GBD's building. During the course of the lawsuit, GBD's insurer had placed approximately $1 million in an escrow account with defendant Yonaty as escrow agent. When GBD lost the lawsuit, it filed an appeal and directed the escrow agent to not release the funds and threatened to sue the agent if he did. Amcat, armed with its judgment against GBD, then moved to hold GBD, its attorney, and the escrow agent Yonaty in contempt for not releasing the funds. GBD sought refuge from the contempt by trying to remove the state court action to federal court, claiming that it had a federal defense based on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. GBD asserted that its statements to the escrow agent not to release or be sued were not contemptuous, but were protected speech. The court disagreed.

As this column has previously stated, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and litigants must demonstrate a basis for subject matter jurisdiction to be in federal court. That is true whether the case is filed directly in federal court or sought to be removed from state court.

Federal subject matter jurisdiction exists where there is diversity of citizenship between the parties or where the lawsuit arises under federal law. The court here explained that determining whether federal question jurisdiction exists is governed by the well-pleaded complaint rule. That rule entails looking at the plaintiff's own statement of his case in the complaint to determine if it shows that the lawsuit "arises under" federal law or is based on federal law. Even if a federal claim is available, a plaintiff can avoid federal jurisdiction by pleading just a state law cause of action. However, the court explained, a plaintiff cannot try to avoid a truly federal-based claim through tricky or artful pleading.

According to Supreme Court precedent, federal jurisdiction over a state-law claim will be available if the state-law claims implicate significant federal issues; that is, the federal issue is "(1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court" without disrupting federal-state jurisdictional statutes. In that way, as the court explained, the mere presence of a federal issue or the mere assertion of a federal interest is insufficient because it is too insignificant.

The same holds true for a party invoking a federal defense. The court ruled that even if the federal defense is necessary for the resolution of the state claim, the mere assertion of the defense is not substantial enough to turn a well-pleaded state law complaint into a significant federal issue.

Accordingly, the court rejected GBD's argument that it had a First Amendment defense to hold the escrow. The court reasoned that neither the underlying contract action nor the motion for contempt implicated federal law; one was based on state common law and the other on state law principles regarding punishment for failure to comply with a state court order. Moreover, the court noted, state courts are equally competent to rule on federal defenses. Thus, the court denied removal, concluding that while the threat of coercive sanctions implicates First Amendment values, the mere fact the defendant may be threatened by an allegedly unconstitutional contempt proceeding does not mean the federal court should interfere in state court disciplinary matters.


Reprinted with permission from the July 15, 2016 edition of the “New York Law Journal” © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.

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