In some cases, a person might be able to file a lawsuit as an anonymous plaintiff. Traditionally, lawsuits, and the parties to lawsuits, are a matter of public record. There are cases, however, when it is in the interests of justice to allow a plaintiff to proceed anonymously. In such cases, the plaintiff’s name will not be used in any of the filings. They will usually be known as “John Doe”, “Jane Doe” or something similar.

What Factors Determine Whether a Plaintiff Can Sue Anonymously?

If the plaintiff’s privacy interests outweigh the public’s interest in an open court proceeding, and will not unduly prejudice the defendant, the plaintiff may proceed anonymously.

In making this determination, there are many factors a court will consider:

  • Whether the plaintiff is merely seeking to avoid the publicity and inconvenience that might accompany the filing a lawsuit, or the plaintiff is seeking to protect private information of a highly sensitive nature
  • Whether disclosure of the plaintiff’s name would create a significant risk of retaliation against the plaintiff or others
  • The age of the plaintiff
  • The risk of unfairness to the opposing party

In addition, courts can consider any other factors which might be relevant in making this determination.

Does the Retaliation against the Plaintiff Have to Be Physical?

No. The threatened retaliation against the plaintiff could be emotional, social or economical. If an open proceeding would threaten a plaintiff’s social standing for reasons aside from the outcome of the case, such as sexuality, pregnancy, or family relations, the court may allow the use of a pseudonym. Likewise, lawsuits against governments which might result in criminal prosecution after the initial case could also be filed anonymously. Certain crimes, such as rape and/or incest, may also warrant the use of a pseudonym during a civil suit.

On the other hand, threats of embarrassment, public hostility, or employment termination are not sufficient arguments for filing anonymous suits. The first two are normal after a person loses a case while job loss is often protected against by existing employment law.

Why Would a Defendant Oppose an Anonymous Lawsuit?

The biggest reason that defendants and judges oppose anonymous lawsuits is that defendants have the constitutional right to confront their accusers in a court of law. A large part of confronting an accuser is knowing exactly who the accusers are. Judges may also oppose anonymous lawsuits because technically anonymous lawsuits are a violation of procedural law, which exists to enforce the right to due process.