Plaintiffs May Use “Doe”-Aliases in Sexual Abuse Case—Federal Court Rules

SDH

In a case pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Jane Doe 1, et al. v. Board of Education of DeKalb Community Unit School District 428, et al., Magistrate Judge Lisa A. Jensen recently issued a written opinion allowing the Plaintiffs, a minor and her mother, to proceed using fictitious names. The Plaintiffs, Jane Doe 1 (mother of Jane Doe 2) and Jane Doe 2 (a minor), allege that one of the Defendants used his position of authority as a student teacher to engage in sex acts with Jane Doe 2 for over five months. The Plaintiffs allege that various individual personnel, along with the Board of Education of the DeKalb Community Unit School District 428, wrongfully allowed the alleged perpetrator to remain unsupervised with minor female students.

The Plaintiffs sought permission from the Court to proceed using aliases. The Perpetrator- Defendant objected to that request, arguing that “these are serious allegations and [disclosure of the Plaintiffs’ identities] gives defendants proper information needed to defend itself in the court of law. . . .” The Magistrate noted that the Seventh Circuit “generally disfavors” the use of pseudonyms, but allows fictious names “when necessary to protect the privacy of children, rape victims, and other particularly vulnerable parties or witnesses.” (quoting Doe v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, 112 F.3d 869, 872 (7th Cir. 1997)). The Court further noted that the ultimate consideration when deciding whether to permit the use of a fictitious name is “whether the [litigant] has a substantial privacy right which outweighs the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.” (quoting Doe v. Cook Cnty., Illinois, 542 F. Supp. 3d 779, 784–85 (N.D. Ill. 2021)).

The Court held that the non-dispositive factors in the case weighed in favor of keeping the Plaintiffs’ identities private. The Court looked to:

  • whether the party or others might suffer retaliatory physical or mental harm by the opposing party;
  • whether the case involves a highly sensitive and personal matter or requires the disclosure of information of the utmost intimacy;
  • whether the party would suffer other harms, including harassment, ridicule, embarrassment, or some other adverse outcome if her identity was made public;
  • whether denying the request to proceed under an alias would increase the likelihood that similarly situated plaintiffs would be chilled from bringing similar claims;
  • whether there is a risk of prejudice to the opposing party;
  • whether there is evidence of ulterior motives of the moving party;
  • whether the party’s identity has been disclosed to the public or kept confidential;
  • whether there are alternative mechanisms to protect the confidentiality of the party; and
  • whether the party is a minor, or was a minor at the time of the conduct at issue.

The Court also found that allowing the Plaintiff-Mother to proceed using an alias would protect the privacy interests of the minor student Plaintiff, as disclosing the identity of the student’s mother would make it easier to ascertain the identity of the student. Ultimately, the Court granted the Plaintiffs’ request to proceed using aliases, finding that “both Plaintiffs have a substantial privacy right which outweighs the presumption of openness in judicial proceedings. . . .” As such, it should be noted that those who claim to have been abused as minors may be able to file a lawsuit in the courts and protect their own privacy rights, but publicly disclose their alleged abuser’s name and the institution which employed the abuser.

Should you have any questions regarding this opinion and how it may affect your organization, school, or company please contact Sean D. Hurley at shurley@airdowerwas.com or (312) 506-4455.

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