Filing Pseudonymously: Rhode Island


  1. Rhode Island
  1. Rhode Island

    1. Caselaw

      The Rhode Island Supreme Court considered plaintiffs’ use of a pseudonym in two cases:

      • Doe v. Burkland, 808 A.2d 1090 (R.I. 2002) – Doe sought injunctive relief to halt former domestic partner’s harassment and threats. The trial court granted Plaintiff’s motion to proceed pseudonymously, and the Supreme Court reversed, basing its holding on the fact that Plaintiff used his real name in the complaint and for nine months thereafter, before moving to proceed under a pseudonym, as the Plaintiff waived any right he had to proceed pseudonymously. The Court detailed in a footnote a multi-factor balancing test derived from Joan Steinman, Public Trial, Pseudonymous Parties: When Should Litigations Be Permitted to Keep Their Identities Confidential?, 37 HASTINGS L. REV. 38 (1985), similar to the formulation of balancing tests seen in federal courts. The correct procedure is to file a timely motion at the outset of a case for leave to litigate under a pseudonym. The court noted that, other jurisdictions (referencing United States District Court cases in Rhode Island, California, New York, and Virginia) have allowed plaintiffs to file under pseudonyms when they “otherwise would be forced to disclose publicly their previously undisclosed status as homosexuals in the course of the litigation.” Id. at 1096.

      • Pelland v. State, 919 A.2d 373 (R.I. 2007) – Probationers challenged the state’s new rule limiting their travel during probationary period, and appeal the denial of their motion to proceed under pseudonyms. Plaintiffs argued that pseudonyms were warranted as they “feared unusual scrutiny and adverse consequences owing to their status as sex offenders,” and followed proceed from Doe v. Burkland. Id. at 375. The state Supreme Court affirmed, and established that the correct standard of review for a motion to proceed pseudonymously is abuse of discretion. As there was no caselaw on point, the Court looked to federal cases to determine the standard of review, as well as citing Burkland and Joan Steinman’s law review article to state the correct balancing test for the initial consideration of pseudonyms. Id. at 376-77.

      An earlier, superior court case considered a motion to proceed pseudonymously, and looked to federal cases in the absence of Rhode Island precedent.

      • Doe v. O'Neill, No. C.A. W.C. 86-354, 1987 WL 859818 (R.I. Super. 1987) – Doe was treated for two STDs, but the doctor and his staff then spread this confidential medical information through the community. The court noted that at the time, “[t]here [wa]s no authority under Rhode Island law for the use of fictitious names to protect plaintiff's identity. Similarly, the Rhode Island Rules of Civil Procedure contain no provision for its use.” Id. at *1, n.1. The court then surveyed federal cases where plaintiffs proceeded as Does, noting cases about abortion, welfare, homosexuality, and birth control, and that the discretion to allow pseudonymity was given to the trial court. Here, the court decided that the Plaintiff’s privacy interests in STDs were great and granted the motion.

      A diversity of other types of claims have also supported plaintiff pseudonymity, but without discussion by the court. They may provide helpful facts to which to analogize.

      • Bristol v. R.I. Dept. of Human Services, No. 95-6889, 1997 WL 839884 (R.I. Super. 1997) – One plaintiff in a consolidated case, Jane Doe, appealed a state agency’s denial of Medical Assistance funds for her adult incontinence supplies needed due to a permanent complication from surgery. The court noted that Doe was granted leave to proceed pseudonymously by the trial court. Note, however, that the other plaintiff was named, although the court does not discuss why there is a difference.

      • Doe ex rel. His Parents and Natural Guardians v. East Greenwich School Dept., 899 A.2d 1258 (R.I. 2006) – Doe is public school student who needs a special education program which the school has failed to provide. The court simply notes: “‘John Doe,’ of course, is a pseudonym designed to protect his privacy.” Id. at 1262 n.1.

      • Several cases have claims stemming from sexual abuse of minors, where the court does not address the use of pseudonyms: Doe v. O'Connell, No. PC 86-0077, 1989 WL 1110566 (R.I. Super. 1989) (minor John Doe has sexual relationship with priest); Doe v. McKenna, No. C.A. 94-7084, 1998 WL 269228 (R.I. Super. 1998) (minor Jane Doe sexually molested by teacher).

      Note that Rhode Island’s Supreme Court has held that there can be no liability under the state’s Privacy Act where defendants lawfully obtained information about plaintiffs from court records. See, e.g., Doe v. Edward A. Sherman Pub. Co., 593 A.2d 457 (R.I. 1991).

    2. Filing Requirements & Availability of Court Records

      R.I. R. CIV. PRO. 10 (2009): Form of Pleadings:

      “(a) Caption; Name of Parties . . . In the complaint the title of the action shall include the names of all the parties . . . .”

      Supreme Court opinions are available dating back to 1999, at (last visited Apr. 20, 2010).

    3. Relevant Statutes

      • R.I. GEN. LAWS § 11-37-8.5 (2010) provides for confidentiality of court records concerning the identity of children molested or sexually assaulted.
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