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Doe v. Vail Resorts, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 10, 2018

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
VAIL RESORTS, INC., and VAIL CORPORATION, INC., Defendants.

          ORDER ON MOTION TO PROCEED ANONYMOUSLY

          Michael E. Hegarty, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Jane Doe seeks to proceed anonymously and keep this entire case sealed from the public record. Because Plaintiff has not demonstrated that this case involves highly sensitive and personal matters, departure from the presumption favoring public access to judicial proceedings is not warranted. Accordingly, I deny Plaintiff's Motion For Leave to Proceed Anonymously or For Leave to File a Sealed Case.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 25, 2018, Plaintiff initiated this case under the pseudonym Jane Doe. Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiff alleges Defendants Vail Resorts, Inc. and Vail Corporation, Inc. failed to rehire her as a ski instructor due to her disability (severe depression and anxiety), her workers' compensation claims, and her complaints about her compensation and required work hours. Id. at ¶¶ 7-30. Plaintiff brings claims for (1) discrimination, (2) violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Colorado Wage Act, and (3) violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Id. ¶¶ 31-69.

         On February 8, 2018, Plaintiff filed the present Motion for Leave to Proceed Anonymously, ECF No. 8. Plaintiff seeks to use a pseudonym or seal this case because of the mental health issues underlying her claims. Id. at 3-4. Plaintiff argues that publically disclosing her mental health disabilities will “have an adverse impact on [her] reputation and work as an attorney in this community.” Decl. of Plaintiff ¶ 3, ECF No. 8-1. According to Plaintiff, “[t]o require [her] to proceed under her own name is to force [her] to choose between seeking redress for the Defendants'] discrimination and damaging her professional reputation through the stigmas associated with mental illnesses.” Mot. to Proceed Anonymously 5.

         Defendants filed a response to Plaintiffs motion on March 5, 2018. Resp. to Mot. to Proceed Anonymously, ECF No. 17. Defendants first contend that Plaintiff already disclosed her identity and her mental health diagnoses in her workers' compensation claim. Id. at 3-5. Next, Defendants assert Plaintiff s mental health conditions are not highly sensitive, and Plaintiff has not made a sufficient showing of harm to overcome the public interest in open judicial proceedings. Id. at 5-9. Finally, Defendants argue that permitting Plaintiff to proceed anonymously would hinder their ability to effectively defend this case. Id. at 9. Plaintiff filed a reply brief on March 23, 2018. Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Proceed Anonymously, ECF No. 28.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         “Proceeding under a pseudonym in federal court is, by all accounts, ‘an unusual procedure.'” Femedeer v. Haun, 227 F.3d 1244, 1246 (10th Cir. 2000) (quoting MM v. Zavaras, 139 F.3d 798, 800 (10th Cir. 1998)). Indeed, using a pseudonym is contrary to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(a), which requires that an action “be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(a); Femedeer, 227 F.3d at 1246. Furthermore, “courts have long recognized a common-law right of access to judicial records.” Mann v. Boatright, 477 F.3d 1140, 1149 (10th Cir. 2007). Therefore, a presumption exists in favor of public access to judicial proceedings. Id.

         However, “[t]he ‘presumption of access . . . can be rebutted if countervailing interests heavily outweigh the public interests in access.'” Id. (quoting Rushford v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 846 F.2d 249, 253 (4th Cir. 1988)). The Tenth Circuit has described three “exceptional circumstances” in which a plaintiff may proceed anonymously: (1) matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature, (2) matters involving a real risk of physical harm, and (3) matters in which the injury litigated against would be incurred by disclosing the plaintiff's identity. Femedeer, 227 F.3d at 1246. Ultimately, the court must “weigh[] the plaintiff's claimed right to privacy against the countervailing public interest.” Zavaras, 139 F.3d at 803. However, courts should construe these exceptions narrowly, and “[t]he risk that a plaintiff may suffer some embarrassment is not enough.” Femedeer, 227 F.3d at 1246 (quoting Doe v. Frank, 951 F.2d 320, 324 (11th Cir. 1992)).

         Whether to seal a case or permit a party to proceed under a pseudonym is a matter within the trial court's discretion. Zavaras, 139 F.3d at 802 (reviewing the district court's order denying leave to file under a pseudonym for abuse of discretion); Mann, 477 F.3d at 1149 (“Whether judicial records and other case-related information should be sealed or otherwise withheld from the public is a matter left to the sound discretion of the district court.”).

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff has not satisfied her burden of demonstrating that proceeding under a pseudonym is necessary in this case. Plaintiff's motion and reply brief primarily focus on the first circumstance discussed in Femedeer-cases involving matters of a highly sensitive and personal nature.[1] See Mot. to Proceed Anonymously 3-5, ECF No. 8; Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Proceed Anonymously 2-3, ECF No. 28. According to Plaintiff, her mental health condition is highly sensitive information that warrants sealing this case or allowing her to proceed under a pseudonym. Reply in Supp. of Mot. to Proceed Anonymously 2-3.

         Although mental health diagnoses are certainly sensitive, the fact that a case concerns mental health issues, without more, is insufficient to overcome the presumption in favor of public access. See Doe v. Ind. Black Expo, Inc., 923 F.Supp. 137, 142 (S.D. Ind. 1996) (denying a motion to proceed anonymously in a case involving mental health issues, in part because “[t]he concerns this plaintiff has raised are concerns that could be raised by plaintiffs in many employment discrimination cases, including many asserting claims for discrimination based upon disabilities”); Wheeler-Whichard v. Doe, No. 10-CV-0358S, 2010 WL 3395288, at *6 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2010) (“[T]he fact that a case involves a plaintiffs medical condition, while arguably personal in nature, is not in-and-of itself sufficient to grant plaintiff s request to proceed under a pseudonym.”); Doe v. Atchison Hosp. Ass'n, No. 17-2664-JAR, 2018 WL 324259, at *2 (D. Kan. Jan. 8, 2018) (“[P]laintiff has not cited a Tenth Circuit or District of Kansas case permitting use of a pseudonym because a party's health information (mental or otherwise) would be discussed”). Indeed, “[c]ases involving mental health issues routinely proceed without concealing the identity of the Plaintiff.” Roe v. CVS Caremark Corp., No. 4:13-cv-3481-RBH, 2014 WL 12608588, at *2 (D.S.C. Sept. 11, 2014) (collecting employment discrimination cases involving mental health issues). Here, Plaintiff does not identify an aspect of this case, other than the fact that she suffers a mental health disability, that renders the issues sufficiently sensitive to warrant proceeding anonymously.[2]

         Plaintiff relies heavily on Roe v. Catholic Health Initiatives Colorado, No. 11-cv-02179-WYD-KMT, 2012 WL 12840 (D. Colo. Jan. 4, 2012). Mot. to Proceed Anonymously 3-4. The plaintiff in that case alleged the defendant forced her to disclose confidential medical information and then shared that information with others. Id. at *4. The court primarily based its finding that the plaintiff could proceed anonymously on the third Femedeer circumstance. Id. If the court required the plaintiff to reveal her identity, she would continue to suffer the injury she was litigating against-unwarranted disclosure of confidential medical information. Id. In this case, Plaintiff does not allege that Defendants unlawfully gathered or disclosed her mental health information. Furthermore, given the defendant's prior disclosure of confidential information in Catholic ...


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