- The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected an expelled Tulane University student's request to proceed anonymously in his North Carolina lawsuit over sexual assault allegations.
- A unanimous appellate panel found that US District Judge James Dever did not abuse his discretion when he ruled against "John Doe" on the issue of proceeding with a pseudonym.
- A friend-of-the-court brief from the First Amendment Coalition and law professor Eugene Volokh had argued against Doe.
The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will not let a man proceed as “John Doe” in his federal lawsuit in North Carolina alleging a false accusation of sexual assault.
The case had attracted attention from the First Amendment Coalition and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, namesake of Reason magazine’s “The Volokh Conspiracy” blog.
Filed in the Eastern District of US District Court in North Carolina, the case actually stems from events in 2022 at private Tulane University in New Orleans.
A man identified in court records as John Doe was a Tulane senior last year. He accused a woman listed as Jane Doe of spreading false sexual assault accusations against him in February 2022. The woman labeled him “a predator and repeat offender.”
The male student accused Jane Doe and another woman — Sue Roe — of conspiring against him in complaints lodged with Tulane. The school eventually found John Doe “responsible for sexual misconduct” and expelled him in May.
John Doe filed suit against Jane Doe in December 2022, alleging “defamation, abuse of process, tortious interference with contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy.” He also asked for the court’s permission to proceed with the case using a pseudonym.
US District Judge James Dever rejected that request. A unanimous Appeals Court panel agreed Thursday that Dever did not abuse his discretion when making that decision.
“In its opinion, the district court recognized that due to ‘the inflammatory nature of sexual misconduct, the mere accusation … if disclosed, can invite harassment and ridicule,’” wrote Appeals Court Judge Stephanie Thacker. “But the district court determined that Appellant failed ‘to produce ‘evidence to support more than a mere general fear of retaliation or mere embarrassment.’ And the district court noted that there did not appear to be any ‘aggravating factors’ such as media exposure that would endanger Appellant if his identity was known.”
“Finally, the district court explained that while Appellant expressed ‘concern about the potential harm to Jane Doe and Sue Roe’ if their identities were revealed, ‘that consideration does not affect whether the court should allow plaintiff to pursue this action pseudonymously,’” Thacker added.
“In its order, the district court held that extraordinary circumstances that would warrant pseudonymity are not present here,” Thacker wrote. “It recognized that Appellant had argued ‘there is no public interest in the public learning his identity or the identities of others,’ but noted that Appellant had ‘fail[ed] to address the risk that pseudonymous lawsuits have in eroding public access to proceedings.’”
“Appellant similarly argues on appeal that the crucial interests served by open judicial proceedings are not compromised by allowing a party to proceed anonymously. We have held just the opposite: ‘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,’” Thacker explained.
Thacker and fellow Judges Steven Agee and James Wynn rejected John Doe’s main argument.
“Appellant’s central argument on appeal is that his case ‘center[s] around a confidential Title IX proceeding’ so it is different than ‘the garden variety defamation case’ and overcomes any public interest in disclosure of his identity. We disagree,” Thacker wrote.
“[W]e fail to see how Appellant can clear his name through this lawsuit without identifying himself,” she added. “If Appellant were successful in proving defamation, his use of a pseudonym would prevent him from having an order that publicly ‘clears’ him. It is apparent that Appellant wants to have his cake and eat it too. Appellant wants the option to hide behind a shield of anonymity in the event he is unsuccessful in proving his claim, but he would surely identify himself if he were to prove his claims.”
Volokh’s friend-of-the-court brief in the case, filed in April, also argued against John Doe.
“John Doe is trying to punish Jane Doe … for accusing him of sexual assault,” Volokh wrote for the First Amendment Coalition. “If he succeeds, she will likely be driven into bankruptcy based on her speech — speech that she claims is true and therefore constitutionally protected.”
“He is of course entitled to do this, so long as he is able to prevail on his libel claim. But he is not entitled to do this under the cloak of secrecy,” Volokh argued. “Like other libel plaintiffs, and like most other civil plaintiffs and defendants, as well as criminal defendants, he must litigate this case in his own name.”
“Public access, including the norm of litigating under parties’ own names, ‘allows the citizenry to monitor the functioning of our courts, thereby [e]nsuring quality, honesty and respect for our legal system,’” the friend-of-the-court brief continued. “Nowhere is this public right to monitor the judicial process — and the public confidence in the process that this right can bring — more important than when defendants are facing financial ruin for the content of their speech.”