No Anonymity for Accused Predator

JOOTB_FinalA college student accused of sexual assault can't proceed anonymously in his defamation suit against his accuser. That's the recent ruling from a Colorado based federal court.  Court cases are supposed to play out in public, and that includes the names of the parties. 

"John Doe" is a former student at Tulane University.  According to his complaint, Mr. Doe dated "Jane Roe" dated for nearly a year while they were both enrolled at Tulane.  After their relationship ended in October 2021, Ms. Roe complained about Mr. Doe's behavior to Tulane, which issued mutual no-contact orders the next month.  Ms. Roe also sought a protective order in Louisiana state court, claiming that Mr. Doe stalked, harassed, shoved, and threatened her.  In neither proceeding did Ms. Roe claim that Mr. Doe sexually assaulted her.  Mr. Doe and Ms. Roe agreed to a state court order, pursuant to which Tulane's no-contact order became permanent, and Mr. Doe agreed to withdraw from Tulane and cease all contact with Ms. Roe.  According to Mr. Doe, he never sexually assaulted Ms. Roe, and he left Tulane voluntarily.

In August 2022, Mr. Doe enrolled in Front Range Community College in Boulder, Colorado, although he planned to transfer to the University of Colorado after his first year there.  At CU Boulder, Plaintiff rushed and sought to pledge a fraternity, and paid its dues.  Shortly after the fraternity received his bid in September 2022, Ms. Roe sent text messages to the fraternity's social chairs claiming, among other things, that Mr. Doe transferred schools "not through his own choice, but because he was kicked out of Tulane for rape and stalking"; "sexually assaulted and raped [Ms. Roe] countless times"; "forced [Ms. Roe] into very uncomfortable sexual situations, forcing [her] to do painful things which [she] objected to"; "was abusive in every way"; "ha[d] been physically violent with [Ms. Roe]"; "threatened [Ms. Roe's] friends and family and attempted to cut [her] off from every person in [her] life"; and was "a threat to every woman's safety on [CU Boulder's] campus."

The fraternity "terminated" Mr. Doe immediately, based on Ms. Roe's allegedly defamatory claims, and refused to refund a deposit he paid.  According to Mr. Doe, his college friends "cancelled him."  Additionally, fraternity members "spread [Ms. Roe's] malicious lies to numerous other students on campus, who proceeded to bully and ostracize [Mr. Doe]."  Plaintiff ultimately withdrew from CU Boulder and returned home to California."  According to Mr. Doe, Ms. Roe has returned to Tulane, where she continues to "publish[] her false and malicious lies to numerous students there."  Seeking damages, Mr. Doe brought three claims arising out of these allegations: defamation, intrusion on seclusion, and unreasonable disclosure of private facts.

Mr. Doe filed a motion asking the court to allow him to use pseudonyms throughout the case.  Ms. Roe objected, saying she "will allege that she was sexually assaulted in her counterclaims," and she "is choosing to proceed using her own name so as to ensure that the larger and important issues raised by this case—including ensuring that survivors of sexual assault not lose their voice through shame or the threat of legal action—are advanced."

In considering the motion, the court noted that there is a presumption that in federal court proceedings there is a presumption that the parties will be named.  Indeed, the Federal Rules of Procedure don't even contemplate anonymity of the parties.  But the court noted that "anonymity in court proceedings may sometimes be warranted, but it is limited to 'exceptional circumstances,' such as cases 'involving matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature, real danger of physical harm, or where the injury litigated against would be incurred as a result of the disclosure of the plaintiff's identity."

Here, the court noted that the allegations were of a personal nature, but it felt this factor was blunted somewhat by Ms. Roe's desire to make the allegations public.  The court also felt that Mr. Doe was overstating the potential risk of physical harm in that, while he alleged that he's been "cancelled," he'd not alleged that anyone threatened him with physical harm. 

The court also disagreed that revealing Mr. Doe's identity would defeat the purpose of the litigation.  As the court noted, "[Mr. Doe] does not seek injunctive relief in the Complaint, and the alleged injury involving his time at CU Boulder has already occurred.  . . . [Mr. Doe] seeks damages for past conduct by [Ms. Roe].  [Mr. Doe's] argument that 'prevailing in this litigation would be undermined if he were required to reveal his identity,' ignores that by prevailing in this litigation, [Mr. Doe] will have proven the defamatory nature of [Ms. Roe's] previous statements and will likely want to publicize his own name. . . . [I]t would be fundamentally unfair for [a] plaintiff to be able to 'clear his name' and wield a potential judgement against [Ms. Roe] to his advantage but hide under a shield of anonymity if unsuccessful."

It's hard to tell what's fair here.  But the case illustrates the point that people who seek relief in court very rarely get to do it in secret.

About The Author

Jack Greiner | Faruki Partner