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Doe v. Princeton University

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 30, 2019

DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TONIANNE J. BONGIOVANNI United States Magistrate Judge

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion for a Protective Order authorizing Plaintiff John Doe (“Plaintiff”) to proceed under the pseudonym “John Doe” and to similarly permit Plaintiff to identify non-parties to this litigation by pseudonym, and to issue a protective order prohibiting Defendants Princeton University, et al. (“Defendants”) from publicly identifying Plaintiff in court filings or otherwise. (Docket Entry No. 2). In addition to himself, Plaintiff requests the Court permit him to use a pseudonym to protect the identity of the complainant from the underlying disciplinary proceeding (“Alex Roe”), as well as the witnesses to that proceeding. Plaintiff's motion was filed with the consent of the Defendants. The Court has fully reviewed and considered all arguments made in support of Plaintiff's motion. The Court considers same without oral argument pursuant to L.Civ.R. 78.1(b). For the reasons set forth more fully below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff brings this action under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq. (“Title IX”), and various state law claims against Defendants for their actions surrounding the investigation and subsequent adjudication of Plaintiff's involvement in sexual assault. (See generally, Compl.; Docket Entry No. 1). The same day, Plaintiff filed the instant ex parte motion for permission to proceed under a pseudonym. (Docket Entry No. 2). Defendants consent to Plaintiff's appearance by pseudonym and request for a protective order. (Docket Entry No. 10).

         This case arises out of a disciplinary hearing conducted by Defendants in which the Princeton University found Plaintiff responsible for sexually assaulting another student. Plaintiff alleges harm caused by what he claims was an unfair disciplinary process. The pertinent events leading to the disciplinary proceeding are as follows: Plaintiff and Alex Roe[1], students at Princeton University, dated on and off for a two-year period. (See Compl., Docket Entry No. 1 at ¶ 2). On November 4, 2017, Roe alleged that Plaintiff sexually assaulted Roe in his dorm room. Although Plaintiff and Roe had attended a party on the evening of November 3, 2017, their accounts of the night diverged once they left the party. Plaintiff claims that he went back to his room, with no further contact with Roe. (Id. at ¶ 102). Roe claimed that Roe went to Plaintiff's dorm room to retrieve Roe's toothbrush, having left it there the previous night, and the assault ensued. (Id. at ¶ 117, 120). The nature of this encounter was the subject of the underlying disciplinary hearing, which concluded that Plaintiff was guilty of “non-consensual sexual contact.” (Id. at ¶ 126-29). As a consequence, Plaintiff's degree was withheld until January 2019. Plaintiff initiated this litigation in order to address the University's alleged flawed disciplinary process, including that his allegations of sexual assault were not fairly addressed. (Id. at ¶ 92-93).

         Given the nature of the underlying proceeding, the purpose of Plaintiff's lawsuit, and a desire to protect the identities of the individuals involved, Plaintiff filed the instant motion for permission to proceed under a pseudonym. This Court declined to grant Plaintiff's motion for a protective order by consent and permitted Plaintiff to submit supplemental briefing addressing certain cases wherein plaintiffs either elected to proceed without pseudonyms or were denied pseudonym status. (Docket Entry No. 13). The Court specifically requested Plaintiff respond to the following cases: Doe v. Temple Univ., Docket No. 14-cv-04729, 2014 WL 4375613 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 3, 2014): Johnson v. Temple Univ. of Commonwealth Sys. of Higher Educ., Docket No. 12-cv-515, 2013 WL 5298484 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 19, 2013), reconsideration denied, 2014 WL 3535073 (E.D. Pa. July 17, 2014); Dempsey v. Bucknell Univ., Docket No. 11-cv-01679, 2012 WL 1569826 (M.D. Pa. May 3, 2012); Gomes v. Univ. of Me Sys., 365 F.Supp.2d 6 (D. Me. 2005); Fellheimer v. Middlebury Coll., 869 F.Supp. 238 (D. Vt. 1994); Ruane v. Shippensburg Univ., 871 A.2d 859 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2005); and Doe v. Rider Univ., Docket No. 16-cv-4882, 2018 WL 3756950 (D.N.J. 2018). Plaintiff submitted the requested supplemental briefing and the matter is now ripe for decision. (Docket Entry No. 14).

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 10 requires plaintiffs to identify their real names in the Complaint. “[A] plaintiff's use of a pseudonym ‘runs afoul of the public's common law right of access to judicial proceedings.'” Doe v. Megless, 654 F.3d 404, 408 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Does I Thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d 1058, 1067 (9th Cir.2000)). Although the Federal Rules do not explicitly sanction the use of pseudonyms, courts have allowed plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously when the plaintiff can demonstrate (1) “a fear of severe harm” from the public disclosure of his name and (2) “that the fear of severe harm is reasonable.” Id. Crucially, a plaintiff's fear that he may “suffer embarrassment or economic harm is not enough.” Id. (quoting Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc., 527 F.3d 358, 371 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2008)).

         In Megless, the Third Circuit adopted the nine-factor test for the use of pseudonyms that was first articulated in Doe v. Provident Life and Acc. Ins. Co., 176 F.R.D. 464, 467 (E.D.Pa. 1997) (the “Provident Life” test). The Megless court noted that this “list of factors is not comprehensive” and directed courts to consider the particular circumstances of each case. Id. at 409-10. The factors that weigh in favor of granting anonymity include:

(1) the extent to which the identity of the litigant has been kept confidential; (2) the bases upon which disclosure is feared or sought to be avoided, and the substantiality of these bases; (3) the magnitude of the public interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the litigant's identity; (4) whether, because of the purely legal nature of the issues presented or otherwise, there is an atypically weak public interest in knowing the litigant[s'] identities; (5) the undesirability of an outcome adverse to the pseudonymous party and attributable to his refusal to pursue the case at the price of being publicly identified; and (6) whether the party seeking to sue pseudonymously has illegitimate ulterior motives.

Provident Life, 176 F.R.D. at 467-68. The factors that weigh against granting anonymity include:

(1) the universal level of public interest in access to the identities of litigants; (2) whether, because of the subject matter of this litigation, the status of the litigant as a public figure, or otherwise, there is a particularly strong interest in knowing the litigant's identities, beyond the public's interest which is normally obtained; and (3) whether the opposition to pseudonym by counsel, the public, or the press is legitimately motivated.

Id. Courts must exercise their discretion to determine when exceptional circumstances outweigh the strong public interest in open litigation. Exceptional circumstances justify the use of a pseudonym when a reasonable fear of severe harm outweighs the strong public interest in open litigation. Examples of cases where courts have allowed parties to proceed under a pseudonym include those involving “‘abortion, birth control, transsexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS, and homosexuality.'” Id. (quoting Doe v. Borough of Morrisville, 130 F.R.D. 612, 614 (E.D.Pa. 1990)).

         III. ...


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