No Pseudonymity or Sealing in College Student’s Race Discrimination Lawsuit

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From Judge Rachel Kovner (E.D.N.Y.) in Anonymous v. Doe, decided last week:

Between June 14 and June 20, 2023, plaintiff, proceeding pro se and under the name “Anonymous,” filed four actions … alleging that defendants the City of New York, LaGuardia Community College, and various individual employees of the College violated her constitutional rights. Along with the complaints, plaintiff filed requests that each action be placed under seal and that she be allowed to proceed anonymously ….

Plaintiff’s four complaints all contain allegations that she was discriminated against in violation of federal and state law during her time as a student at LaGuardia Community College…. Plaintiff’s first complaint alleges that, in June 2022, a College employee identified only as Jane Doe, in an attempt to discriminate against plaintiff on the basis of her race, falsely accused plaintiff of making a threat against a professor, eventually leading to plaintiff being barred from campus…. Plaintiff’s second complaint centers around an incident in June 2022 when, in the aftermath of Jane Doe’s accusation against plaintiff, plaintiff was allegedly accosted by multiple College security officers, threatened with arrest, and falsely imprisoned…. Plaintiff’s third complaint alleges that a College professor subjected her to differential treatment based on her race and created a hostile learning environment, then falsely accused plaintiff of threatening her, ultimately leading to plaintiff being denied a diploma…. Plaintiff’s fourth complaint alleges that the College discriminated against her and defrauded her in various ways, including by misrepresenting its services, fraudulently decreasing her GPA, depriving her of an opportunity to attend or speak at her commencement ceremony, and improperly placing financial and disciplinary holds on her student record….

[A.] Plaintiff’s Sealing Requests Are Denied

{“The public and the press have a ‘qualified First Amendment right to … access certain judicial documents.'” Although judicial documents “may be kept under seal if … ‘higher values’ … so demand,” such restrictions require “specific, on-the-record findings” that “sealing is necessary to preserve higher values,” and any “sealing order [must be] narrowly tailored to achieve that aim.” Interests found to satisfy Lugosch‘s “higher values” requirement include “the attorney-client privilege,” “national security,” the “protection of the privacy of innocent third parties,” and the “confidentiality of sensitive patient information.”}

Plaintiff argues that sealing these actions is required because she is being “slandered and libeled” and “[m]aking [her] information public would magnify the effects of [defendants’] wrongdoing” rather than right those wrongs. She adds that, because the “case[s] deal[ ] with [her] private academic record and [her] private student personal file,” records which are “not disclosed anywhere else,” those records should not be made available to the public. Finally, she contends that proceeding only under a pseudonym would be insufficient to mitigate these concerns because she is a minority at the College and her identity could be discovered by process of elimination.

These arguments do not warrant filing these cases entirely under seal. Plaintiff’s concerns that publicity surrounding these actions may further harm her reputation do not implicate the sort of “higher values” needed to overcome the presumption of public access to judicial documents. And even assuming that certain aspects of plaintiff’s academic record may ultimately warrant sealing, such a request is premature at this time, as plaintiff’s complaint contains no such sensitive information. Moreover, sealing these actions in their entirety would not be “narrowly tailored to serve [any] interest” that plaintiff has in her academic records. Should such records ever enter this case, plaintiff may move to seal them at that time….

[B.] Plaintiff’s Motions to Proceed Anonymously Are Denied …

{Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires a complaint to “name all the parties.” The Second Circuit has recognized that, while it is sometimes appropriate for a litigant to proceed under a pseudonym, Rule 10(a)’s requirement “serves the vital purpose of facilitating public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and therefore cannot be set aside lightly.” “[P]seudonyms are the exception and not the rule,” and a party seeking to “receive the protections of anonymity … must make a case rebutting” the “presumption of disclosure.”}

Plaintiff argues that anonymity is warranted here because publicity about this case “will prevent future educational and employment opportunities,” and “will put [her] in danger for further harassment and retaliation,” suggesting that she may be “killed or injured” if her name is publicized. Plaintiff also contends that prejudice to defendants will be minimal because defendants’ lawyers “know who [she is].”

Under the factors set out in Sealed Plaintiff, these concerns do not suffice to overcome Rule 10(a)’s “presumption of disclosure.” … Plaintiff’s claims that the College and its employees discriminated against her based on her race, threatened her, and defrauded her, do not involve “highly sensitive” matters within the meaning of the first Sealed Plaintiff factor…. “A plaintiff’s use of a pseudonym is not justified by the mere fact that a case involves allegations of discrimination; such a result would require a plaintiff’s anonymity in every one of the countless discrimination cases before this Court.” … And as to factors two and three, plaintiff’s assertions that she will suffer further academic, professional, reputational, or even physical retaliation if made to proceed under her own name are “vague and far-fetched” and altogether too “speculative in nature” to carry plaintiff’s burden. Nor are these cases in which the public interest in disclosure is “atypically weak” because “of the purely legal nature of the issues presented.” Finally, … “the public’s interest in identifying the parties to a proceeding is significant,” and plaintiff has made no argument that the general rule does not apply here….

Correct, I think, for reasons I generally discussing in my The Law of Pseudonymous Litigation.

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