In rare situations, an individual may be able to bring a lawsuit anonymously. The majority of lawsuits are a matter of public record.
There are situations, however, where it is in the interests of justice to allow a plaintiff to file anonymously. In these instances, the plaintiff’s identity is not used in any of the filings.
When this occurs, the plaintiff is typically referred to as plaintiff John Doe or plaintiff Jane Doe. Plaintiff Jane Doe or Jane Roe is a fictitious name that is used when a woman’s actual identity is obscured or unknown.
For a male, similar variants may include plaintiff John Doe or John Roe. Other examples may include Johnny Doe, Janie Doe, or Baby Doe if the plaintiff is a minor.
When filing an anonymous lawsuit, if an individual’s identity is unknown when the lawsuit is filed, the plaintiff may call the defendant Jane Doe. For example, an individual may want to hide their identity in a case due to the intimate nature of the accusations involving sexual assault or abuse. In this case, they may do so if the court grants them anonymity and protections under the law.
Example of a John Doe Lawsuit
Suppose that an individual created a defamatory or fraudulent review against another individual’s company on Yelp!, Google, or another site. As a result, that company is now suffering, and the owner wants to pursue a defamation action to have the false or defamatory review deleted or to determine who placed the anonymous review.
John Doe cases may also be used when an anonymous poster makes a defamatory YouTube video, website, or libelous remark on another individual’s social media profile. Because the victim does not know the identity of the individual who created the review, they may pursue a John Doe lawsuit.
What Factors Determine Whether a Plaintiff Can Sue Anonymously?
A plaintiff may proceed anonymously if their private interests exceed the public’s interest in an open court procedure, and the plaintiff would not be adversely prejudiced. When determining whether filing an anonymous lawsuit is permitted, there are several elements courts will evaluate, including:
- If the plaintiff is only trying to avoid the exposure and hassle of initiating a case or whether they are trying to preserve extremely sensitive private information;
- Whether revealing the plaintiff’s identity poses a considerable danger of reprisal against the plaintiff or other individuals;
- The plaintiff’s age; and
- The possibility of being unjust to the opposing party.
In addition, a court may examine any additional considerations that may be relevant to reaching this conclusion.
Does the Retaliation Against the Plaintiff Have to Be Physical?
No, the retaliation against a plaintiff does not have to be physical. Threatened retribution against plaintiffs may be financial, social, or emotional in nature.
For example, suppose an open proceeding would jeopardize an individual’s social position for reasons other than the results of the case, for example, family ties, pregnancy, or sexuality. In these types of situations, the court may grant permission to use a pseudonym.
Litigation against a government that may result in criminal prosecution following the original case may also be brought anonymously. There are also certain types of crimes, for example, rape or incest, that may justify using a pseudonym, or false name, in a civil claim.
It is important to note that public hostility, threats of shame, or work termination are not sufficient justifications for an anonymous lawsuit. Public hostility and threats of shame may be common when an individual loses a lawsuit.
Work termination, however, is often covered by employment legislation.
Can Health or Disability Benefits Claims Be Filed Under a Pseudonym?
A recent federal court decision held that a claimant who is asking for disability benefits cannot sue anonymously, despite assurances that a behavioral health issue caused her disability and the public disclosure of her name would jeopardize her ability to pursue a career if she were to recover.
Although the court accepted that allowing an individual to proceed anonymously may shield them against humiliation, damage, harassment, or personal disgrace, these concerns have to be balanced against the public interest in transparency.
In the case noted above, the court relied on a previous case involving an actress who stated that her livelihood was harmed by the revelation of her true age in an online database. Although shame, revenge, and ridicule were considered substantial injuries, the court determined that the threat was not sufficient enough to enable her to continue the case anonymously.
In the case of the disability benefits claimant, the court determined that the injury that was predicted was hypothetical and was based on events that had not occurred and that may not ever occur in the future. Cases that involve minors are often allowed to be brought under pseudonyms for the same reasons that juvenile records are not made available to the public.
The susceptibility of minors as well as the sensitivity of their concerns, requires a greater degree of protection. This can be a tricky topic, as legal privileges should not be hampered by fear or humiliation.
There are many individuals who would likely keep quiet and not bring their case if it means that their most intimate and personal details would be exposed to the public.
What if a Defendant Wants to Remain Unknown?
Plaintiffs are the parties or entities that file cases. There is a general consensus that their identity has to be disclosed.
Defendants, however, are coerced into appearing in court, and their reputations, both personal and commercial, may be severely damaged simply by untested charges when the complaint commencing the lawsuit is filed. This is one of the undesirable parts of litigation.
Even if a complaint is filed just for harassment and shown to be without substance, although there are available remedies, these remedies may not be adequate to offset the damages caused by the charge. Because of this, if a dispute is handled promptly before any judgments are made and the parties agree, the court may seal the case in order to keep the defendant’s identity hidden under certain conditions.
Why Would a Defendant Oppose an Anonymous Lawsuit?
One of the most crucial reasons defendants and courts do not like anonymous lawsuits is that defendants have the fundamental right to confront their accusers in court. One significant element of facing an accuser is knowing who they are.
Courts may also object to an anonymous lawsuit because it is legally a breach of procedural law, which is in place to protect the right to due process.
When Is it Appropriate to Launch a John Doe Lawsuit?
If an individual does not know the proper defendant or their identity, they should still file their John Doe lawsuit as soon as possible. Even if an individual does not know who the defendant is, it is preferable to bring a defamation claim as soon as possible, as the statute of limitations may expire.
In addition, crucial information may be removed or erased from internet servers. Another reason a John Doe lawsuit may be beneficial is that it enables an individual to submit and save proof and claims before it is too late to file a claim.
Should I Hire a Lawyer?
If you have any issues, questions, or concerns related to filing a lawsuit anonymously, it is important to consult with a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Your lawyer can advise you of the laws in your state regarding filing anonymously, as well as whether you will likely be granted the opportunity to do so.