Caselaw in California addresses several facets of proceeding as a pseudonymous plaintiff.
Filing Using True Names: Two cases present seemingly contradictory results. In Doe v. Brown, the California appellate court allows the trial court proceeding & appeal to proceed with the Doe caption, acknowledging in a footnote, but not discussing, the parties’ stipulation and the trial court’s approval of the anonymity of the plaintiff and even the removal of Doe’s true name from all “publicly accessible court records.” By contrast, in Taus v. Loftus, the plaintiff was not allowed to proceed using initials by the California Supreme Court, in part because she revealed her true name in her initial filing.
- Doe v. Brown, 99 Cal. Rptr. 3d 209 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009) – Doe is a sex offender who, having completed probation, seeks not to have her personal information placed on the California sex offender registry which is available on the internet (Megan’s Law). Doe filed the proceeding under her true name; nevertheless, the court opines:
"Although Doe initiated this proceeding using her legal name, the parties entered into a stipulation, approved by the trial court, to substitute the pseudonym Jane Doe for Doe's legal name in the case title, and to permit her to proceed on appeal under that pseudonym. Pursuant to the parties' stipulation, the trial court entered an order removing Doe's legal name from all publicly accessible court records pertaining to this proceeding." 1
See also Doe v. California Dept. of Justice, 93 Cal. Rptr. 3d 736 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009) (bringing a similar challenge to Megan’s Law).
- Taus v. Loftus, 151 P.3d 1185 (Cal. 2007) – Plaintiff was the anonymous subject of a study and was included in a subsequent publication on adults’ memories of sexual abuse from childhood. Plaintiff sues for damages, alleging defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress stemming from the revelation of her identity in later scholarly publications. In examining the Plaintiff’s request for pseudonymity in the proceeding, the Court noted that while Defendant did improperly disclose Plaintiff’s initials in a deposition relating to the proceeding, Plaintiff herself had previously filed under her true name, identifying herself as the Jane Doe.
Interestingly, one recent court of appeals opinion mentions the increase across jurisdictions of plaintiff pseudonyms used to protect privacy interests:
- Starbucks Corp. v. Superior Court, 86 Cal. Rptr. 3d 482 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008) – The court notes in dicta that “[t]he judicial use of ‘Doe plaintiffs”’ to protect legitimate privacy rights has gained wide currency, particularly given the rapidity and ubiquity of disclosures over the World Wide Web.”
Initials are also used by some plaintiffs in California courts.
- M.P. v. City of Sacramento, 98 Cal.Rptr.3d 812 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009) – Plaintiff M.P. brought an action against the city’s fire department under a theory of vicarious liability for her alleged sexual assault by several firefighters. Court does not discuss use of initials.
- John B. v. Superior Court, 137 P.3d 153 (Cal. 2006) – Two of opposing parties are husband and wife, whose last initial is used in place of their full name in the record. Wife sues husband for allegedly transmitting the HIV virus to her due to his infidelity with other men. Court does not address use of last initial.
Acknowledgement is made by some courts, without a discussion of the pseudonymous use.
- J. D. v. Lackner, 145 Cal. Rptr. 570 (Cal. Ct. App. 1978) – Plaintiff Jane Doe (identified in caption by the initials for the pseudonym) sues seeking Medi-Cal benefits for her sex reassignment surgery. The appellate court noted, without further discussion, that appellant “has been and shall be allowed to proceed herein under the fictitious name ‘Jane Doe’ . . . .” Id. at 92.
- Doe v. Roe, 267 Cal. Rptr. 564 (Cal. Ct. App. 1990) – Doe and Roe were a couple; Doe sues for the negligent transmission of herpes. The court notes: “By stipulation of the parties and order of this court the parties have been designated by fictitious names to protect their privacy.” Id. at 564 n.1.
- Doe v. Capital Cities, 58 Cal. Rptr. 2d 122 (Cal. Ct. App. 1996) – Doe is actor who, while seeking employment by Defendant, was drugged and gang raped by the defendant’s hiring agent and others. Doe sues for negligent hiring practices and sexual harassment. The court acknowledged the use of the pseudonym: “Given the nature of these events, plaintiff has elected to sue as ‘John Doe.’” Id. at 1042 n.1.
Other California decisions make no mention of the pseudonymity of the plaintiff. These cases are useful insofar as they provide breadth to the examples that one could analogize to.
- Socialist Workers Committee v. Brown, 125 Cal. Rptr. 915 (Cal. Ct. App. 1975) – Two Doe plaintiffs in this consolidation of cases seek to maintain pseudonymity in their donation to the Socialist Party, for fear of retribution and harassment if they disclose their donations under campaign finance law. The court does not discuss Plaintiffs’ pseudonymity in the record.
- Doe v. Bakersfield City School Dist., 39 Cal. Rptr. 3d 79 (Cal. Ct. App. 2006) – Does were sexually abused by junior high school counselor, and seek leave to file late tort claims on childhood sexual abuse. No discussion of pseudonymity.
- Doe v. Saenz, 45 Cal. Rptr. 3d 126 (Cal. App. 2006) – Doe plaintiffs have criminal histories that bar them from child care employment under state law. Does challenge state agency interpretation of the applicable statute. Court does not discuss pseudonymity.
- Doe v. Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego, 101 Cal. Rptr. 3d 398 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009) – Does allege sexual abuse at hands of clergy. Issue in case is the statute of limitations for bringing claims for childhood sexual abuse and negligent hiring. No discussion of pseudonymity.
- Doe v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cashel & Emly, 99 Cal. Rptr. 3d 158 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009) – Does claim sexual abuse by priest, and appeal the finding of no jurisdiction by the trial court over the Irish seminary where the abusive priest was trained. No discussion of pseudonymity.
Filing Requirements & Availability of Court Records
CAL. CODE CIV. PRO. § 367: “Every action must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest, except as otherwise provided by statute.”
Appellate records are available for free on the internet through California Courts: Opinions of the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals, available here. They are searchable by citation or by a natural language search.
CAL. RULES OF COURT, Rule 8.401 (2010): Juvenile Appeals and Writs: Confidentiality [not effective until July 1, 2010: see CAL RULES OF COURT, RULE 8.400 (2010)]
(a) Access to filed documents: (1) Except as provided in (3), the record on appeal and documents filed by the parties in proceedings under this chapter may be inspected only by the reviewing court and appellate project personnel, the parties or their attorneys, and other persons the court may designate. (2) To protect anonymity, a party must be referred to by first name and last initial in all filed documents and court orders and opinions; but if the first name is unusual or other circumstances would defeat the objective of anonymity, the party's initials may be used.
CAL. RULES OF COURT, RULE 2.550 (2010): Sealed Records
[Provides procedure for balancing interests when court considers sealing, including express factual findings. Also notes a presumption of open access to court records.]
CAL. CIV. CODE § 3427.3 (2009): Protection of individual privacy and prevention of harassment
The court having jurisdiction over a civil proceeding under this title shall take all steps reasonably necessary to safeguard the individual privacy and prevent harassment of a health care patient, licensed health practitioner, or employee, client, or customer of a health care facility who is a party or witness in the proceeding, including granting protective orders. Health care patients, licensed health practitioners, and employees, clients, and customers of the health care facility may use pseudonyms to protect their privacy.
CAL. HEALTH & SAF. CODE § 120291 (2009): Felony for specific intent to infect [with HIV]
(c) (1) [Provides for use of pseudonym for victims when criminal proceedings are initiated.]
- 1. Id. at 413 n.3.