United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division
A.E. and E.W., Plaintiffs,
JOSHUA NIELD, CITY OF HUNTINGTON, WEST VIRGINIA, and JOHN DOES 1-7, individuals, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
C. CHAMBERS, CHIEF JUDGE
before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File
Document Under Seal. ECF No. 3. Plaintiffs' case levels
allegations of sexual assault against Defendant Joshua Nield,
an officer in the Huntington Police Department. The motion is
DENIED. Nonetheless, the Court will construe Plaintiffs'
motion as a motion to proceed by initials only in order to
preserve their anonymity.
there is a presumption of openness of judicial proceedings,
but the presumption is not without exception. James v.
Jacobs, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993). The Fourth
Circuit, having had the occasion to opine on the
circumstances needed to proceed anonymously, imposed a duty
on trial courts to “inquire into the circumstances of
particular cases to determine whether the dispensation is
warranted.” Jacobson, 6 F.3d at 238. That
inquiry should be guided, although not dictated, by an
illustrative list of factors noted in the Fourth
Circuit's opinion. They are:
whether the justification asserted by the requesting party is
merely to avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend
any litigation or is to preserve privacy in a matter of
sensitive and highly personal nature; whether identification
poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the
requesting party or even more critically to innocent
non-parties; the ages of the persons whose privacy interests
are sought to be protected; whether the action is against a
governmental or private party; and relatedly the risk of
unfairness to the opposing party from allowing an action
against it proceed anonymously.
Id. The Fourth Circuit subsequently added an
additional factor for trial courts to consider when faced
with a request to proceed anonymously. “[W]hen a party
seeks to litigate under pseudonym, a district court has an
independent obligation to ensure that extraordinary
circumstances support such a request by balancing the
party's stated interest in anonymity against the
public's interest in openness.” Doe v. Pub.
Citizen, 749 F.3d 246, 273 (4th Cir. 2014).
of sexual assault are the quintessential claims that warrant
anonymity for victims. “Courts generally allow a
plaintiff to litigate [anonymously] in cases containing
allegations of sexual assault because they concern highly
sensitive and personal subjects.” Doe v.
Cabrera, 307 F.R.D. 1, 6 (D.D.C. 2014). This is because
sexual assault victims are exposed to extraordinary invasion
of their physical (and often mental) privacy when bringing a
sexual assault claim. Doe No. 2 v. Kolko, 242 F.R.D.
193, 196 (E.D.N.Y. 2006); Doe v. Evans, 202 F.R.D.
173, 176 (E.D. Pa. 2001). Society also has a general interest
in encouraging victims of sexual assault to report these
assaults, and permitting victims to proceed anonymously
likely removes a significant barrier. See Kolko, 242
F.R.D. at 196. It is these concerns, more so than any other
identified by the Fourth Circuit, that counsel the Court to
permit Plaintiffs to proceed by their initials.
not to say that the Court is summarily brushing aside
Defendants' interests. Plaintiffs brought suit against
both an individual and a city government. In the case of the
former, an individual generally has an interest in requiring
his or her accusers to make their allegations publically so
that he or she may not suffer the reputational consequences
of being accused without the ability to defend against the
allegations. See So. Methodist Univ. Ass'n of Women
Law Students w. Waynne & Jaffe, 599 F.2d
707, 713 (5th Cir. 1979) (“the mere filing of a civil
action against . . . private parties may cause damage to
their good names and reputation. . . .”). Nevertheless,
where allegations of sexual assault are concerned, especially
against a government official that could use his position to
intimidate Plaintiffs, the harm of exposing sensitive and
personal information of Plaintiffs outweighs Nield's
possible harm caused by Plaintiffs anonymous accusations.
This determination is bolstered by the fact that Nield almost
certainly knows who Plaintiffs are. His defense is therefore
not prejudiced by lack of information about the events that
led to Plaintiffs allegations. See J.W. v. District of
Columbia, ___ F.R.D. ___, No. 16-cv-0573, 2016 WL
4543993, at *5 (D.D.C. Aug. 31, 2016) (citing United
States v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1464 (D.C. Cir.
1995)) (“A typical reason courts cite when finding that
proceeding anonymously would pose unfairness for a defendant
is that the defendant may not know the identity of the person
bringing the charges.”).
concerns the City of Huntington, “[c]ourts have
concluded that anonymous litigation is more acceptable when
the defendant is a governmental body because government
defendants do not share the concerns about reputation that
private individuals have when they are public charged with
wrongdoing.” Id. (quoting Cabrera,
307 F.R.D. at 8). This factor thus also weighs in favor of
motion to seal the complaint must be DENIED. ECF No. 3. The
general presumption for openness in court proceedings must
apply as much as possible in order to give meaning to the
public's right to access judicial proceedings. See
Kolko, 242 F.R.D. at 194 (citing Nixon v. Warner
Commc'ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 598-99 (1978)). The
public has a right to know about the allegations leveled
against Nield and the City of Huntington, but its rights do
not extend to exposing the identities of Plaintiffs where
here Plaintiffs have revealed extremely sensitive and
personal information in the complaint Accordingly, in order
to balance the public's rights of access and the harm of
linking Plaintiffs identities to sensitive and personal
allegations, the Court will permit Plaintiffs to proceed
using their initials only. The parties shall use only
Plaintiffs initials, and shall refrain from revealing any
other identifying information in any public filing.
exhibits to their motion to seal contain identifying
information, therefore, although the Court cannot grant the
motion to seal, the motion and its exhibits shall remain
Court DIRECTS the Clerk to send a copy of this Order to
counsel of ...