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Eugene Volokh

No Pseudonymity for Woman Suing Alleging Rape by Sean "Diddy" Combs

From yesterday's decision by Judge Jessica Clarke (S.D.N.Y.) in Doe v. Combs:

Plaintiff alleges that Combs, Pierre and the Third Assailant … gang raped her when she was {17 years old} [and under the influence of drugs and alcohol they supplied] …. The Court recognizes that public disclosure of Doe's identity could have a significant impact on her, particularly given the graphic and disturbing allegations in this case. While the Court does not take Plaintiff's concerns lightly, the Court cannot rely on generalized, uncorroborated claims that disclosure would harm Plaintiff to justify her anonymity. Without more specific support, Plaintiff fails to overcome the prejudice to Defendants and public interest factors implicated here.

Indeed, similar motions to proceed anonymously in sexual assault lawsuits involving public figures, including Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, were likewise denied…. The Court, however, stays the effect of this Order until after the Court decides Defendants' pending motion for judgment on the pleadings….

This case concerns highly sensitive and personal matters, including allegations that Defendants trafficked, drugged and gang raped Doe. Although Plaintiff is now an adult, she was a minor when the alleged incidents occurred, making the case particularly sensitive…. [And] other than informing Defendants of her identity, Doe has not publicly revealed her identity related to these allegations.

Although these factors weigh in Plaintiff's favor, they are not dispositive. See, e.g., Doe v. Weinstein (S.D.N.Y. 2020) ("Courts in this district have explained that allegations of sexual assault, by themselves, are not sufficient to entitle a plaintiff to proceed under a pseudonym."); Rapp v. Fowler (S.D.N.Y. 2021) (denying plaintiff's motion to proceed anonymously in action involving Kevin Spacey's alleged sexual abuse of plaintiff when he was a minor). And every other factor, as described below, weighs against Plaintiff maintaining her anonymity for the entirety of this action….

Where a plaintiff claims that disclosure will harm that person's mental health, courts in this Circuit look for corroboration from medical professionals that detail the risk to plaintiff. That corroborating evidence must detail how revealing plaintiff's name in particular, as opposed to the trauma that could occur through reliving the experience through litigation, would cause harm.

Here, Doe has failed to identify any particularized harm that revealing her identity would cause. She claims only generally and without corroboration that she will suffer trauma if her identity is revealed and she becomes the focus of media attention…. As in Doe v. Skyline Autos. Inc. (S.D.N.Y. 2019), "Plaintiff simply projects generalized harm, and more is required for her to satisfy her burden." Her conclusory assertions fall short of demonstrating the particularized harm she would suffer as a result of disclosure….

The fact that a plaintiff was a minor at the time of the alleged harm, alone, [does not sufficiently weigh in her favor]. Here, although Plaintiff was a minor when the assault allegedly occurred, she is now an adult in her late 30s. She fails to identify any other, relevant vulnerabilities….

[Moreover,] "[f]undamental fairness suggests that defendants are prejudiced when required to defend themselves publicly … while plaintiff make[s] accusations from behind a cloak of anonymity."

In this case, the most significant form of prejudice to Defendants in the Court's view is the discovery disadvantage that Plaintiff's anonymity would present. A plaintiff who levies serious allegations "puts [her] credibility in issue." In such a situation, when one party is anonymous while others are not, there is an "asymmetry in fact-gathering." This asymmetry is more profound in cases involving substantial publicity, because "information about only one side may come to light as a result."

Plaintiff's own complaint demonstrates how this imbalance could play out. Doe references previously-filed public lawsuits against Combs and Pierre, including one against Combs by Cassie. In describing Cassie's suit, the Complaint asserts that almost immediately after her allegations became public, witnesses with relevant knowledge about Combs came forward to corroborate her claims. Permitting Plaintiff to remain anonymous undermines Defendants' ability to discover relevant information about Plaintiff. This is especially true, as Plaintiff herself acknowledges, in a case like this that happened decades ago where evidence and witnesses may be difficult to find….

Plaintiff identifies the public interest in protecting sexual assault victims so that others will not be deterred from reporting crimes. The Court agrees that this is certainly a public interest; however, this has been "repeatedly rejected by courts in this District as an adequate basis by itself to warrant anonymity." Doe v. Telemundo Network Grp. LLC (S.D.N.Y. 2023).

Furthermore, the public's interest in protecting sexual assault victims is not the only interest implicated here. There is also a public interest in the accused being able to publicly confront an accuser, a right that would be undermined by Plaintiff's anonymity. The public also has a legitimate interest in knowing the underlying facts of a litigation, including the identities of litigants….

Further, the Court could not find a case in this Circuit—and Plaintiff fails to point to one—with similar allegations where a plaintiff's opposed motion to proceed anonymously was granted. While Plaintiff relies on Doe v. Black (S.D.N.Y. 2023) to support its position, that case is readily distinguishable. There, as counsel for Plaintiff is aware, Defendant did not oppose the motion and as a result, pointed to no prejudice in the plaintiff proceeding anonymously. After "according substantial weight to the fact that Defendant [did] not oppose Plaintiff's request," the Court in its discretion granted the motion at the outset of the litigation. See also Doe v. Gooding (S.D.N.Y. 2021) (granting plaintiff's motion to proceed anonymously without prejudice to future objection where the defendant failed to appear to oppose the motion); Trooper 1 v. N.Y. State Police (E.D.N.Y. 2022). The Court declines to do so here where Defendants vigorously oppose the request, identify prejudice they would suffer as a result and where Plaintiff fails to point to specific harm to overcome these factors.

The Court will, however, stay the effect of this Order until after the Court decides the pending motion for judgment on the pleadings. If the Court were to dismiss this action, it would do so for a purely legal reason, where Plaintiff's identity is irrelevant to that decision. Furthermore, the prejudice to Defendants here is at its greatest if this matter were to proceed to discovery. Therefore, if this action survives a decision on Defendants' motion, Plaintiff shall pursue this action using her legal name….

Note that courts are split on all these issues, including in sexual assault cases (as I lay out in The Law of Pseudonymous Litigation, especially Appendices 2a & 2b); some other judges would likely agree with this decision, while others would likely disagree.

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