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Doe v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute And State University

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

April 2, 2018

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
VIRGINIA POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE AND STATE UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          ROBERT S. BALLOU UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

In this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff has moved for leave to proceed under the pseudonym “John Doe.” I heard oral argument on the motion on March 13, 2017. I conclude that the plaintiff's interest in remaining anonymous does not outweigh the presumption of openness in judicial proceedings. Accordingly, I deny the plaintiff's motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The plaintiff is a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (“Virginia Tech”), who hopes to attend medical school. In the fall of 2016, the plaintiff enrolled in an epidemiology course taught by Dr. Pamela Ray. Dr. Ray approached the plaintiff during the final examination and informed him that another student had accused him of cheating. Dr. Ray then collected the plaintiff's answer sheet and advised him that he would be contacted by the university's honor court.

         The plaintiff appeared before an honor panel on February 24, 2017. After hearing from the plaintiff and Dr. Ray, the panel found against the plaintiff. As a result, he received an “F” in the course. During the disciplinary proceedings, the plaintiff never learned the identity of the student who had accused him of cheating.

         The plaintiff filed this action on January 15, 2018 claiming that Virginia Tech violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process “when it neglected to identify [the plaintiff's] accuser or provide him with an opportunity to confront and question his accuser.” Compl. ¶ 44, Dkt. No. 1. The plaintiff further asserts that he was wrongly disciplined as a result of the alleged constitutional violations, and that he “suffers ongoing harm to his good name and educational progress.” Id. at ¶ 45.

         The plaintiff filed his complaint under the pseudonym “John Doe, ” but did not seek permission to proceed under a pseudonym. Virginia Tech moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In response, the plaintiff seeks leave to proceed under a pseudonym.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires that a complaint “name all the parties.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a). “‘This rule embodies the presumption, firmly rooted in American law, of openness in judicial proceedings, ' which dates back to the English common law and finds support in First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and press.” Candidate #452207 v. CFA Inst., 42 F.Supp.3d 804, 806 (E.D. 2012) (quoting Doe v. Merten, 219 F.R.D. 387, 390 (E.D. Va. 2004)). “Pseudonymous litigation undermines the public's right of access to judicial proceedings. The public has an interest in knowing the names of the litigants, and disclosing the parties' identities furthers openness of judicial proceedings.” Co. Doe v. Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 273 (4th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted).

         The presumption of openness is not absolute. See id. The Fourth Circuit “has recognized that in exceptional circumstances, compelling concerns relating to personal privacy or confidentiality may warrant some degree of anonymity in judicial proceedings, including use of a pseudonym.” Id. (citing James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993)). In Jacobson, the Fourth Circuit identified five nonexclusive factors for courts to consider when determining whether to allow a party to proceed anonymously:

[1] whether 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 [5] the risk of unfairness to the opposing party from allowing an action against it to proceed anonymously.

Jacobson, 6 F.3d at 238. Proceeding under a pseudonym, however, is a “rare dispensation.” Id.; see also Pub. Citizen, 749 F.3d at 274 (holding that “when a party seeks to litigate under a pseudonym, a district court has an independent obligation to ensure that extraordinary circumstances support such a request by balancing the party's stated interest in anonymity against the public's interest in openness and any prejudice that anonymity would pose to the opposing party”).

         Applying the Jacobson factors, I conclude that this case does not present the type of extraordinary circumstances in which the moving party's stated interest in anonymity outweighs the presumption of openness in judicial proceedings. First, the plaintiff argues that his identity must be concealed to protect him from the “lasting stigma [associated with] having been found guilty of cheating” and the adverse effects that such allegation would have on his ability to compete for admission into medical school. Pl.'s Br. 6, Dkt. No. 4. Such concerns, while understandable, do not involve “the type of ‘personal information of the utmost intimacy' that warrants abandoning the presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.”[2] Merten, 219 F.R.D. at 392. Indeed, federal courts presented with similar facts have consistently reached the same conclusion. See CFA Inst., 42 F.Supp.3d at 808 (holding that an “interest in avoiding embarrassment, criticism, and reputational harm [incident to an allegation of cheating] are not privacy interests in a matter of an especially sensitive or highly personal nature and, otherwise, are not sufficient to overcome the public interest in the openness” of a civil proceeding); Doe v. Brown Univ., 209 F.Supp.3d 460, 466 n. 2 (D.R.I. 2016) (finding that the need for transparency in the public court proceeding outweighed the plaintiff's desire for anonymity in a case involving allegations of academic dishonesty); Doe v. Univ. of Akron, No. 5:15-cv-2309, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192433, at *9-11 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 3, 2016) (concluding that a law student's concerns regarding the stigma associated with allegations of plagiarism and the effects that it may have on future career opportunities did not justify permitting the plaintiff to proceed pseudonymously, and emphasizing that “similar cases across the country are routinely litigated by law students in their own name”). Accordingly, the first Jacobson factor weighs against permitting the plaintiff to proceed under a pseudonym.

         The second factor considers whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the plaintiff or innocent non-parties. The plaintiff does not argue this factor, and no evidence has been offered that identifying the plaintiff or any other students by their actual names presents any risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm. ...


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