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L.M. v. City of Gardner

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 3, 2019

L.M., AS PARENT AND NEXT FRIEND OF MINOR A.M., Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF GARDNER, KANSAS, Defendant.

          ORDER

          James P. O'Hara U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         The adult plaintiff in this action filed the complaint under the pseudonym L.M., asserting claims on behalf of his minor daughter, identified as A.M., against the City of Gardner, Kansas (“the City”). Simultaneously, L.M. filed a motion for leave to proceed using a pseudonym (ECF No. 3). Defendant does not oppose the motion. Because the court finds L.M. has demonstrated exceptional circumstances in which the need for his anonymity outweighs the public interest, the motion is granted.

         I. Factual Background

         The following facts come from plaintiff's complaint (ECF No. 1). Plaintiff alleges that during the summer of 2018, when A.M. was 16 years old, A.M. was sexually harassed and abused on an ongoing basis by her superior while working as a seasonal employee for the City. On June 28, 2018, the superior allegedly raped A.M. As a result of the sexual abuse, A.M. has suffered and continues to suffer severe emotional distress including “anxiety, stress, mental anguish, fear, and humiliation.”[1]

         II. Legal Standards for Proceeding under a Pseudonym

         Proceeding anonymously is not contemplated by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[2] Rather, Rule 10(a) requires that the title of a complaint “name all the parties, ” and Rule 17(a) prescribes that “[a]n action must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest.”[3] These rules recognize the “substantial benefit to maintaining open court proceedings” in which the public knows the identity of litigants.[4] The Tenth Circuit has stated that the public has an “important interest in access to legal proceedings.”[5] In addition, without a party's name in the public record, “it is difficult to apply legal principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel.”[6] Thus, “[o]rdinarily, those using the courts must be prepared to accept the public scrutiny that is an inherent part of public trials.”[7]

         Nonetheless, the Tenth Circuit has recognized that there may be cases in which “exceptional circumstances” warrant permitting a party to proceed anonymously.[8]Adopting the standard of the Eleventh Circuit, the Tenth Circuit has ruled,

Lawsuits are public events. A plaintiff should be permitted to proceed anonymously only in exceptional cases involving matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature, real danger of physical harm, or where the injury litigated against would be incurred as a result of the disclosure of the plaintiff's identity. The risk that a plaintiff may suffer some embarrassment is not enough.[9]

         When a plaintiff seeks to proceed anonymously, the court must “weigh[] the plaintiff's claimed right to privacy against the countervailing public interest.”[10] “A plaintiff should not be permitted to proceed under a pseudonym unless the need for anonymity outweighs the public interest in favor of openness.”[11]

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts the highly personal and sensitive nature of this action, in which a minor could be subject to the type of harm litigated against if her father's identity is revealed, outweighs the general public interest in open litigation. The court agrees.

         Without minimizing the importance of maintaining open court proceedings, the court determines the specific and unique facts of this case warrant permitting L.M. to continue in this action under his pseudonym. First, the court finds that if the identity of L.M. is publicly revealed, the identity of A.M. will be easily determined. Plaintiff asserts, and the City does not dispute, that the City of Gardner consists of approximately 19, 000 residents. L.M. asserts that “[r]equiring L.M. to reveal [his] identity is likely to also reveal A.M.'s identity in their small community” where the incidents occurred.[12] Because of the “inseparable relationship” between A.M. and her parent, “[o]rdering disclosure of the parent's identit[y] would place-in effect-personally identifiable and confidential information about [the alleged sexual assault of A.M., a minor] in the public record.”[13]

         Second, the fact that A.M. was a minor at all times material to the allegations of rape and sexual assault is greatly significant. The allegations involve matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature, which occurred when A.M. was 16 years old. “Courts grant heightened protection to child victims and have concluded that complaints involving minors are matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature.”[14] Judges in this district have consistently found allegations of sexual assault and harassment of minors to be of a nature justifying protecting the identity of the minor.[15]

         Third, there is a potential danger of emotional harm to A.M. if her identity becomes publicly known. As previously indicated, the complaint alleges that as a result of the sexual assault, A.M. suffered severe emotional distress including “anxiety, stress, mental anguish, fear, and humiliation.”[16] There is a risk that public disclosure of L.M.'s identity in this case might lead to further severe emotional distress. “Although embarrassment is not enough to overcome the public interest in litigation, the real ...


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