Moving John Doe Off Campus: Expanding Pseudonym Filings Beyond Title IX Lawsuits
We sue educational institutions when our clients have been wrongfully expelled or suspended for violating a college’s Title IX sexual misconduct policy. When we file these federal lawsuits, we do not file under our client’s real name. Rather, we file under a John Doe pseudonym to protect the identity of our client. We also use pseudonyms for any other students identified in the lawsuit. For reasons involving the privacy of educational records, our ability to file under a pseudonym is generally unopposed by educational institutions and accepted by courts. But what about non-student adults accused of sexual misconduct? Should they be able to file as John Doe plaintiffs?
Public Policy Generally Favors the Openness of Lawsuits
To be sure, public policy and governing law in most jurisdictions favor the openness of lawsuits. Indeed, the public has a right to know who is availing themselves to the publicly funded court system. An exception to this general rule pertains to minor children, who may be identified with initials and not their full names. Ironically, in these situations, it would not be impossible for a member of the public to discern the identity of those minors if someone really wanted to do so.
Protecting the Identity of Students Wrongly Disciplined for Sexual Misconduct
However, lawyers suing on behalf of students who have been wrongfully disciplined for committing sexual misconduct have been successful in arguing that protecting students from being publicly identified as a “rapist” or “sexual predator” outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the identity of a student. Most courts understand that the moniker of being a sexual predator can destroy a student’s future before that student even launches in life. Judges understand that the reputational harm from a false allegation to a student can impact that student’s ability to transfer to another educational institution or gain employment later in life.
The Devastating Impact of “Sexual Predator” Labels
In the post #MeToo era, being labeled a sexual predator is the ultimate scarlet letter. Just ask Chris Noth of “Sex and the City” how devastating a sexual assault allegation can be on a career. “And Just Like That,” Mr. Noth was fired from the CBS series “The Equalizer” after recently being accused of incidents alleged to have occurred in 2004 and 2015. Regardless of a denial by an accused person, sexual assault allegations can halt a career. Denials just don’t seem to hold any weight in the court of public opinion, which is why some accused males are now fighting back in what are being called #TheyLied lawsuits.
Should Those Accused of Sexual Misconduct Be Able to File Under a Pseudonym?
Should those accused individuals be able to file as John Doe plaintiffs? A recent article in Reason magazine caught our attention. The article suggested that adults whose reputations have been destroyed by false allegations of sexual misconduct should be able to file under a pseudonym to stop the reputational hemorrhaging caused by false allegations. These potential plaintiffs worry about the “Streisand effect,” where the lawsuit generates more attention to the allegations than the initial false claims of sexual misconduct. The article pointed out that two recent cases alleging defamation have been filed under a pseudonym: Doe v. Underwood and Doe v. Sebrow. These plaintiffs proceeded under the John Doe moniker just like former actions filed against defendants for revenge porn and in more traditional #MeToo cases focusing on sexual assault.
Our Take: There Must Be Legal Recourse for the Falsely Accused
In many instances, we think these cases should be permitted to proceed under pseudonym just like students do in lawsuits against educational institutions. Cases focusing on sexual assault require analysis of deeply personal information about the parties. While real estate deals gone wrong can have drama or involve thorny personal issues, it’s not the same as discussing something as delicate and emotionally charged as one’s sexual history. We just aren’t convinced that it’s the public’s business to know what did or did not happen in a student’s dorm room or an adult’s bedroom (outside of the criminal process). There must be some legal recourse for the falsely accused that doesn’t entail creating an even longer paper trail associating a person’s name with alleged sexual misconduct.
If you or a loved one has been falsely accused of sexual misconduct, our experienced attorneys are here to help. In these cases, moving quickly is crucial. Contact us as soon as you become aware of accusations.