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Anonymous Petitions Restricted in Third Circuit

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

What’s in a name? He who we call a plaintiff filing under a pseudonym would have as much right to bring a complaint, correct?

The Third Circuit sayeth nay.

On Monday, the Third Circuit upheld a Pennsylvania district court’s decision denying a plaintiff’s motion to proceed anonymously in a claim against public officials.

In the case, John Doe v. Thomas Megless, John Doe's claim originated with an email sent by officials from the Upper Merion Township School District and police to a distribution list of public officials and private citizens instructing them "if you see this person in or around the district schools, please contact the police."

The email allegedly included an attachment, which used Doe's real name and 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." The email contained his picture, his home address, the make, model, and license plate number of his vehicle, and his Pennsylvania driver's license number.

Doe sued the township, claiming that the email was intended to characterize him as a dangerous and potentially mentally unstable pedophile, and to authorize recipients to stop, detain, and investigate him on sight. In addition to his complaint, Doe filed a motion to proceed anonymously.

The district court denied Doe's motion to proceed anonymously and directed him to file a complaint under his real name or risk dismissal of the action with prejudice. Doe refused to file a complaint under his real name, and the court granted the township's motion to dismiss Doe's amended complaint pursuant, and Doe appealed.

Courts allow a party to proceed anonymously in exceptional cases. In order to qualify, a plaintiff must show both a fear of severe harm, and that the fear of severe harm is reasonable. The Third Circuit evaluated Doe's case under the Provident Life test to determine if he qualified, and found that he did not.

Here, Doe would not suffer substantial harm that might sufficiently outweigh the public interest in an open trial. Because the flyer neither accused Doe of criminal behavior or mental illness, nor disclosed highly sensitive personal information, he did not demonstrate that disclosing his identity would cause him substantial "irreparable harm." The Third Circuit also noted that the damage Doe feared to his reputation was already done when the flyer was distributed.

If your client wants to file a petition anonymously with the Third Circuit, be sure to review Provident Life carefully. If your client is already publicly associated with the topic of the claim, Third Circuit feeder courts are unlikely to grant the motion.

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