Doe v. Megless, No. 10-4110 (3d Cir. August 1, 2011)
A school security officer and police chief sent an email with an attached flyer to public officials and private citizens instructing them, “if you see this person in or around the district schools, please contact the police.” Using John Doe’s real name, they stated, “[Doe] has been known to hang around schools in Upper Merion and other townships. He has not approached any kids at this point. [Doe]‘s mental status is unknown. If seen stop and investigate.” They included his picture, home address, driver’s license number, and the make, model, and license plate number of his vehicle.
John Doe sued for Section 1983 violations in the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleging that the communications were intended to portray him as a “dangerous and potentially mentally unstable pedophile” and to authorize all recipients to stop, detain, and investigate him.
Doe filed a motion to proceed anonymously, which the court denied. When Doe failed to file a new complaint using his real name as the court directed, it dismissed his claims with prejudice. Doe appealed the district court’s decision to the Third Circuit.
The Third Circuit exercised an abuse of discretion standard of review to the district court’s decisions to not permit Doe to proceed anonymously and to dismiss his claims.
Noting that courts in this circuit have been balancing the competing interests of litigants and the public without guidance, the Third Circuit endorsed the Provident Life Test*, a non-exhaustive list of nine factors to consider before permitting a litigant to proceed under a pseudonym:
1. Has the identity of the litigant been kept confidential?
2. What harm is the litigant seeking to avoid, and is the litigant’s fear reasonable?
3. If this litigant is forced to reveal his or her name, will other similarly situated litigants be deterred from litigating claims that the public would like to have litigated?
4. Are the facts not relevant to the outcome of the claim?
5. Will the claim be resolved on its merits if the litigant is denied the opportunity to proceed using a pseudonym, or will the litigant potentially sacrifice a potentially valid claim simply to preserve their anonymity?
6. Is the litigant seeking to use a pseudonym for nefarious reasons?
7. There is universal public interest in access to the identities of litigants.
8. Does the subject of the litigation heighten the public’s interest?
9. Is the party opposing the use of a pseudonym doing so based on nefarious reasons?
In affirming the district court, the Third Circuit found that Doe did not demonstrate that disclosing his identity would cause substantial harm that would outweigh the public interest in an open trial because the communications did not accuse Doe of criminal behavior or mental illness and did not release highly sensitive personal information.
*Doe v. Provident Life and Acc. Ins. Co., 176 F.R.D. 464, 467 (E.D. Pa. 1997).