United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division
Elizabeth K. Dillon, United States District Judge.
moves for leave to proceed under the pseudonym “John
Doe.” For the following reasons, the court holds that
his privacy interest outweighs the presumption of openness in
judicial proceedings. It will thus grant the motion.
filed his complaint, under the pseudonym John Doe, against
defendants Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University, Timothy Sands, Frank Shushok, Jr., Ennis McCrery,
Caroline Green, and Kyle Rose. All of the individual
defendants were or are employed by the
University. (Compl. 1-2, Dkt. No. 1.)
alleges that he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting
“Jane Roe” while enrolled as an undergraduate at
the University. According to Roe, on or about January 23,
2016, Doe sexually assaulted her in Doe's campus
apartment unit. After an investigation by the Blacksburg
Police Department, Doe was charged with a misdemeanor that
was later dismissed. Then, the University's Office of
Equality and Accessibility (OEA) began an investigation, led
by McCrery, into the incident. (Id. at 3-4.) After a
conduct hearing was held, in which Green and Rose
participated, Doe was found responsible for
“verbal/non-verbal assault, sexual assault, battery,
and an alcohol beverage violation.” (Id. at
thereafter appealed the finding, “challenging the
sufficiency of the evidence against him and the improper
investigation.” His appeal was denied, and he was
expelled from the University as a sanction. (Id.)
alleges violations of his due process rights under the United
States and Virginia Constitutions, violation of Title IX,
negligence, and breach of contract. (Id. at 7-14.)
Plaintiff filed his complaint under the pseudonym “John
Doe, ” but he did not seek permission to proceed under
a pseudonym. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under
Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, seeking
either “an order staying the time to respond to the
Complaint unless and until Plaintiff obtains leave to file
under a pseudonym, ” or dismissal of the complaint for
failure to obtain leave before filing under a pseudonym.
(Mot. Dismiss 1, Dkt. No. 7.) In response, Doe filed an
opposition to defendants' motion to dismiss and seeks
leave to proceed under a pseudonym. (Pl.'s Opp'n to
Mot. Dismiss, Dkt. No. 14; Pl.'s Mot. Leave, Dkt. No.
15.) He seeks to “proceed under a pseudonym to protect
his and his accuser's identities.” (Pl.'s Mem.
Supp. Mot. Leave 2, Dkt. No. 16.) Defendants filed a brief
reply to Doe's opposition. (Defs.' Reply, Dkt. No.
22.) Defendants also filed a response to Doe's motion for
leave, in which they state that they neither support nor
oppose the motion. (Defs.' Resp., Dkt. No. 23.)
Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) states: “[t]he title of
the complaint must name all parties.” The purpose of
this rule “is to ‘apprise the parties of their
opponents and to protect the public's legitimate interest
in knowing all the facts and events surrounding court
proceedings.'” Doe v. Pittsylvania Cty.,
No. 4:11-cv-43, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13618, at *3 (W.D. Va.
Feb. 3, 2012) (quoting Doe v. Hallock, 119 F.R.D.
640, 643 n.1 (S.D.Miss. 1987)). However, parties may proceed
anonymously based on a number of exceptions to this
requirement that have been articulated by courts. Roe v.
Aware Woman Ctr. for Choice, 253 F.3d 678, 685 (11th
ultimate test for deciding if a plaintiff should proceed
anonymously is whether plaintiff ‘has a substantial
privacy right which outweighs the customary and
constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial
proceedings.'” Pittsylvania Cty., 2012
U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13618, at *2-3 (some internal quotation
marks omitted) (quoting Doe v. Frank, 951 F.2d 320,
323 (11th Cir. 1992)). This presumption of openness is well
grounded in our nation's laws. Id. at *3.
“Courts have long held that the First Amendment
protections of freedom of speech and press safeguard the
public's right to attend trials, which must be
‘open to the public absent an overriding and clearly
articulated interest to the contrary.'”
Id. (quoting Doe 1 v. Merten, 219 F.R.D.
387, 390-91 (E.D. Va. 2004)).
presumption of openness is not absolute; anonymity may be
appropriate in some cases. “The crucial interests
served by open judicial proceedings are not compromised by
allowing a party to proceed anonymously.” Id.
at *4. If a plaintiff is granted leave to proceed under a
pseudonym, the public is not denied its right to attend the
proceedings or inspect the court's opinions and orders on
the underlying constitutional issue. Id.
“[T]he only thing potentially being shielded from the
public is plaintiff's name and any court proceedings or
opinions that might be necessary to determine
standing.” Id. (quoting Doe v. Barrow
Co., 219 F.R.D. 189, 193 (N.D.Ga. 2003)). Still,
“it is the exceptional case in which a court allows a
party to proceed anonymously.” Id.
a plaintiff is allowed to proceed anonymously is a decision
committed to the sound discretion of the district court.
Id. at *6. To guide this decision, the Fourth
Circuit has provided the following five factors:
 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;  whether
identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental
harm to the requesting party or even more critically, to
innocent non-parties;  the ages of the persons whose
privacy interests are sought to be protected;  whether the
action is against a governmental or private party; and,
relatedly,  the risk of unfairness to the opposing party
from allowing an action against it to proceed anonymously.
James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993).
Not all of these factors may be relevant to a given case, and
there may be others that are. Id. Consequently, the
trial court must “carefully review all the
circumstances of [the] case and then decide whether the
customary practice of disclosing the plaintiff's identity
should yield to the plaintiff's privacy concerns.”