Parties in litigation may wish to keep certain pleadings or other documents out of the public eye or even keep their names off of publicly filed court documents altogether. For example, in defamation cases plaintiffs are often forced to re-publish false and defamatory statements about them when they file their complaint. Litigants in such cases would logically prefer to keep their names anonymous, but Minnesota courts generally resist such efforts.
Right to Public Access to the Courts
Minnesota recognizes a strong common law right by members of the public to have access to, inspect, and copy civil court records. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Schumaker, 392 N.W.2d 197 (Minn. 1986). This right is based on the principle that what transpires in the courtroom is public property. Id. Minnesota courts allow limited exceptions to this rule by issuing protective orders for confidential information like medical records, trade secrets, and other business information. But what if the party wishes to remain anonymous altogether? A few well-known U.S. Supreme Court decisions have involved anonymous “Doe” plaintiffs but the practice is much more limited than one might expect in both federal court and Minnesota state court.
Under limited circumstances, a party seeking anonymity may be identified by initials or pseudonym. Using initials or a pseudonym to identify a litigant is often referred to as “Doe pleading” as a party might be named as “John Doe” or “Jane Roe.” The practice of using the name John Doe has its origins in English common law where fictitious names were used for “delicate legal matters.” The practice was largely abolished in English law in the 1800s. Black’s Law Dictionary suggests that the practice of using fictious names goes back even further to the Romans who used “Titius Seius” as their legal pseudonym.
The Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure provide that: “[a] party may be identified by initials or pseudonym only where authorized by law or court order.” Minn. R. Civ. P. 10.01. Doe pleading is rarely authorized by court order, however. And only a couple Minnesota statutes expressly permit confidential or pseudonym pleadings in narrow circumstances. Minn. Stat. § 145.4247, subdivision 4 provides for privacy protection in civil actions brought under the Woman’s Right to Know Act. Similarly, Minn. Stat. § 604.31, subdivision 5 provides that “[t]he court shall allow confidential filings to protect the privacy of the plaintiff” for civil actions brought under Minn. Stat. § 604.31 (a Minnesota statute providing a cause of action for nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images and nonconsensual sexual solicitation). Outside of these circumstances the chance a judge will allow a party to remain anonymous in a civil proceeding is low.
Naming Doe Defendants
There actually are two circumstances when Doe pleading might be applied: (A) when the plaintiff wishes to remain anonymous, as discussed above, but also, more commonly, (B) when the plaintiff does not know the name or identity of one or more defendants to be named later.
On this point, the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure provides the following:
“When a party is ignorant of the name of an opposing party and so alleges in the party’s pleading, the opposing party may be designated by any name and when that opposing party’s true name is discovered the process and all pleadings and proceedings in the action may be amended by substituting the true name.”
Minn. R. Civ. P. 9.08.
Rule 9.08 serves a modest purpose because the designation of an unknown John Doe puts the named parties on notice the complaint will be amended. See Leaon v. Washington County, 397 N.W.2d 867, 871 (Minn. 1986). The Minnesota Supreme Court in Leaon held that Rule 9.08 does not entitle the amended pleadings to relate back as to the action against that individual. See id. In other words, it will not stop the statute of limitations from running. In interpreting the purpose of Rule 9.08, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that: “[t]he rule’s purpose is not to permit the inclusion of ‘Doe defendant’s’ as a general placeholder that would essentially permit the addition of new defendants in the future.” Szanto v. Target Corp., Nos. A09-109, A09-841, 2010 WL 346297, at *11 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2010). Minnesota courts have been largely silent in circumstances where a plaintiff uses Doe pleading for the purpose of remaining anonymous, reflecting its disfavor.
Federal courts are also unlikely to allow Doe pleading. Doe v. Stegall, 653 F.2d 180, 186 (5th Cir. 1981), a case involving a mother and two minor children challenging prayer in Mississippi public schools is one of the few example of federal courts allowing Doe pleading by plaintiffs. There, the Court held that the decision to permit a party to remain anonymous “requires a balancing of considerations calling for maintenance of a party’s privacy against the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.” The Stegall court identified several balancing considerations to be made, including that: “plaintiffs seeking anonymity were suing to challenge government activity; prosecution of the suit compelled plaintiff’s to disclose information ‘of the utmost intimacy;’ and plaintiffs were compelled to admit their intention to engage in illegal conduct, thereby risking criminal prosecution.” Id. at 185 (citing Southern Methodist University Ass’n, 599 F.2d 707, 713 (5th Cir. 1979)). In addition to considering the foregoing factors, the Stegall Court also “emphasize[d] the special status and vulnerability of the child-litigants, the showing of possible threatened harm and serious social ostracization based upon militant religious attitudes, and the fundamental privateness of the religious beliefs, all of which are at the core of this suit to vindicate establishment clause rights.” Stegall, 653 F.2d at 186.
Doe pleading might seem like an attractive option for litigants and their attorneys, especially in defamation cases, but Courts in Minnesota usually push back on this practice.
If you have any questions about Minnesota Doe pleading, Minnesota employment law, or are involved in a lawsuit as an employer or employee please contact the Minnesota employment law attorneys at Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A.
About the Author:
Minnesota employment law attorney V. John Ella represents clients in defamation, business litigation and commercial disputes. John may be reached at 612.455.6237 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Trepanier MacGillis Battina P.A. is a Minnesota employment law firm located in Minneapolis, Minnesota.