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Doe v. Purdue University

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

August 19, 2019

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
PURDUE UNIVERSITY, ALYSA CHRISTMAS ROLLOCK, KATHERINE L. SERMERSHEIM, CHRISTIE WRIGHT, JEFF ROOZE, and JOHN/JANE MOES 1-5, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSHUA P. KOLAR MAGISTRATE JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Allow the Parties to Use Pseudonyms [DE 2], filed by Plaintiff John Doe on June 3, 2019. Defendants[1] filed a response on June 20, 2019, and Plaintiff filed a reply on June 28, 2019. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the motion.

         BACKGROUND

         On June 3, 2019, Plaintiff filed his Complaint, alleging that he was wrongly expelled from Purdue University because of a disciplinary case based on false accusations of sexual misconduct. Plaintiff alleges a denial of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, violation of section 12, article I of Indiana's constitution, violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a denial of his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and breach of contract.

         ANALYSIS

         In the instant motion, Plaintiff asks the Court to allow and require the use of the pseudonym “John Doe” for any references to Plaintiff, the pseudonym “Jane Roe” for the individual who accused him of sexual assault, and the use of only initials for other Purdue students involved in this litigation. The motion also asks the Court to require the parties to file sealed unredacted copies of any redacted exhibits attached to filings. In the alternative, Plaintiff requests that the Court allow him to litigate under a pseudonym until the Court rules upon any dispositive motions. Defendants object to the use of a pseudonym for Plaintiff and agree to the requests for relief regarding Plaintiff's accuser, other Purdue students, and redacted exhibits. Because good cause exists for the agreed matters, the Court grants that relief. Accordingly, the remaining issue before the Court is whether Plaintiff can proceed as “John Doe” or whether he must disclose his name publicly on the docket.

         A few notes regarding how Plaintiff frames the issue are in order before turning to the applicable legal standards. In his opening brief, Plaintiff states that he is asking for this relief because the potential harm he faces “outweighs the possible prejudice to Purdue and Purdue's employees identified as defendants in this Complaint . . . .” (Pl.'s Mot. 1, ECF No. 2). As discussed below, this Court must balance much more than the prejudice borne by two private litigants. Taxpayers fund the courts, and they expect to monitor the administration of justice through public court proceedings and open court files.

         Plaintiff's reply brief takes the Defendants to task for having inconsistent positions regarding motions to allow litigation to proceed anonymously when those requests involve plaintiffs who allege they were victims of sexual assault versus those who claim an educational institution unfairly imposed punishment based upon a false report of sexual assault or harassment. That too misses the mark. The victim of sexual assault has, in many ways, a greater privacy interest in shielding his or her identity than one who, like Plaintiff here, claims that any sexual involvement was consensual and voluntary. That is not to say Plaintiff's concerns over the possibility that he could prevail in this litigation and still face negative consequences if his name is further tied to Purdue's expulsion of him does not carry weight. It simply recognizes that Defendants' decision to take a different approach when plaintiffs seek to proceed anonymously after alleging they were victims of sexual assault is not unwarranted.

         “Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10 requires that the caption of the Complaint include the names of all the parties, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17 requires that all civil actions be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest.” Doe v. Purdue Univ., 321 F.R.D. 330, 340 (N.D. Ind. 2017) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 10, 17). “The use of fictitious names is disfavored, and the judge has an independent duty to determine whether exceptional circumstances justify such a departure from the normal method of proceeding in federal courts.” Doe v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield United of Wis., 112 F.3d 869, 872 (7th Cir. 1997); see also Doe v. Indiana Black Expo, Inc., 923 F.Supp. 137, 139 (S.D. Ind. 1996) (recognizing that the “unusual practice” of proceeding under a fictitious name “has been permitted in exceptional cases where the party has a privacy right so substantial as to outweigh the ‘customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings'” (quoting Doe v. Frank, 951 F.2d 320, 324 (11th Cir. 1992))). “[T]he presumption that parties' identities are public information, and the possible prejudice to the opposing party from concealment, can be rebutted by showing that the harm to the [party requesting anonymity] . . . exceeds the likely harm from concealment.” Doe v. City of Chicago, 360 F.3d 667, 669 (7th Cir. 2004); see also Doe v. Elmbrook Sch. Dist., 658 F.3d 710, 721 (7th Cir. 2011), aff'd en banc in relevant part, 687 F.3d 840, 842-43 (7th Cir. 2013); Purdue Univ., 321 F.R.D. at 341.

         The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has not articulated a test or elements for determining when exceptional circumstances exist to justify allowing a party to proceed under a pseudonym. However, in analyzing this issue in a case similar to the one at bar, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana found that courts consider the following non-exclusive factors:

1. Whether the plaintiff is challenging governmental activity;
2. Whether the plaintiff would be required to disclose information of the utmost intimacy;
3. Whether the plaintiff would be compelled to admit his intention to engage in illegal conduct, risking ...

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