Survivors of sexual assault are often hesitant to come forward and assert their legal rights, and understandably so. Court proceedings can be invasive, particularly when sex crimes are involved, being a known survivor of sexual assault can carry harmful stigmas, and perpetrators and their legal counsel will typically do their best to discredit and demonize survivors who speak out. Many survivors also face ongoing threats of violence after the incident in question.
One of the legal tools survivors can use to address this problem is a motion to proceed anonymously.
Plaintiffs Can Be Granted Pseudonyms Under Specific Circumstances
Generally, court proceedings are a matter of public record, and all parties to a case must be named under Rule 10 of the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure. However, under the precedent set by Doe v. Stegall in 1981 and Doe v. Frank in 1992, plaintiffs can receive permission to use pseudonyms based on a loosely defined set of special circumstances:
- The plaintiff is suing a government agency
- The plaintiff would have to reveal information of “the utmost intimacy”
- The plaintiff would have to reveal an intention to commit a crime, exposing themselves to prosecution
The plaintiff does not have to prove that all of these conditions apply, and courts will sometimes even grant special permission when none of them do, although there must be a compelling reason. If the plaintiff’s identity is relevant to the matter being decided, or if revealing it will not present a danger or extreme privacy violation, motions to proceed anonymously may be denied, as in SMU v. Wynne and Jaffe.
A judge’s goal here should be to balance the public’s right to transparency and the defendant’s right to a fair trial, against the plaintiff’s right to access the legal system safely and without intimidation or illegal retaliation. Every case is different, but judges often recognize and respect how extremely personal the details of a sexual assault case can be for the plaintiff. In fact, our office has never had a judge deny a request for a sexual assault victim to proceed anonymously.
You May Be Able to Request Anonymity Even After Filing a Complaint
A motion to proceed anonymously can be filed at the same time as the complaint itself, but it doesn’t have to be. In the case of Doe v. Barrow County, Barrow County moved to have the case against it dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiff had not yet received permission to proceed anonymously, and therefore the documents that already existed using pseudonyms were improper. The court granted anonymity and ruled that such anonymity could be granted after the case had been filed, as long as it remained under the same court’s jurisdiction.
You Will Still Need to Reveal Your Identity to the Court
Even when suing under a pseudonym, you will still need to provide the judge and opposing counsel with all the information that would normally be required, including your name and the details of what happened, no matter how personal. However, being granted permission to proceed anonymously does allow you to keep your identity secret from the public. This can protect you from invasive media attention, harassment, and discrimination based on other people’s opinions of your case.
If you’d like to learn more about how to file an anonymous civil suit for sexual assault, contact The Stoddard Firm for a free consultation today.