Actress Alleging Improper Disclosure of Her Age in Online Database Cannot Sue Anonymously
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington dismissed a complaint anonymously filed by an actress alleging violation of state privacy laws based on the inclusion of her age in an online profile. The court held that the harm to plaintiff from the disclosure of her age was not grave enough to justify proceeding anonymously, and gave plaintiff leave to amend the complaint by identifying herself.
Online Database Allegedly Reveals Actress’s Age
Plaintiff, a 40-year-old Asian-American actress living in Texas, sought to launch her career by creating an online profile in the Internet Movie Database (“IMDb.com”), a subsidiary of Amazon.com, which resulted in a number of roles. She then signed up for IMDb.com Pro in order to create an expanded profile. She was required to provide credit card and other personal information, such as her name, address, and ZIP code.
Plaintiff brought the action anonymously because “[c]oming forward in her real name would impact the purpose of her lawsuit which is to seek IMDb’s compliance with its obligation to maintain the privacy of her personal information.” Amazon at 3. Defendants moved to dismiss unless plaintiff identified herself.
Actress May Not Proceed Anonymously
Although Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(a) requires that a complaint include the names of all parties, the Ninth Circuit has allowed parties to use pseudonyms when necessary to “protect a person from harassment, injury, ridicule or personal embarrassment.” Amazon at 5 (quoting United States v. Doe, 655 F.2d 920, 922 n.1 (9th Cir. 1980)). In making this determination, courts consider the five factors set forth in Does I Thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d 1058, 1068(9th Cir. 2000): “(1) the severity of the threatened harm, (2) the reasonableness of the anonymous party’s fears, (3) the anonymous party’s vulnerability to retaliation, (4) the prejudice to the opposing party, and (5) the public interest.” Amazon at 5. Under Doe v. Kamehameha Schools, 596 F.3d 1036, 1043 (9th Cir. 2010), the court noted, the first two factors are the most important.
— Severity of Harm
The court found that four of the five factors weighed against allowing plaintiff to proceed anonymously. “First, while the harms that Plaintiff fears—embarrassment, ridicule, and retaliation—may be serious, they do not rise to the level of severity required by the Ninth Circuit to permit a party [to] bring a case anonymously in federal court.” Amazon at 5. In Advanced Textile, the court observed, foreign garment workers on the island of Saipan had brought suit anonymously for unfair labor practices, fearing physical violence, deportation, and economic retaliation, which included termination and blacklisting. While the instant plaintiff asserted that disclosing her identity would cause her a loss of livelihood from industry blacklisting, the court found the comparison inapt, noting that, unlike the plaintiffs in Advanced Textile, she was not working on a small island where her immigration status depended on her employment, nor did she face eviction, deportation, or retaliation against her family.
— Reasonableness of Actress’s Fears
Moreover, plaintiff’s fears were not objectively reasonable, based on context and others’ likely reactions. In Kamehameha, the Ninth Circuit declined to let school-children challenging an admissions policy proceed anonymously, despite online death threats, observing that people often make anonymous threats online that they do not intend to carry out and that there were only a few threats among hundreds of anonymous comments. In the instant case, the record similarly showed only a few offensive remarks out of many, which readers would not likely perceive as true threats against plaintiff, and which were in any event far less severe than those in Kamehameha.
— Actress’s Vulnerability to Retaliation and Prejudice to Defendants
As to the third factor, the court found that plaintiff was not uniquely vulnerable to retaliation, and thus was not entitled to special protection. In contrast, the plaintiffs in Advanced Textile did not have the freedom to quit their jobs and find other work on the island. The fourth factor, potential prejudice to defendants, also weighed against plaintiff to some extent. Defendants argued that they could not be sure of correctly identifying an anonymous plaintiff for evidentiary purposes. The court observed, however, that this risk could be mitigated through protective orders.
— Public Interest
Finally, the court found that the fifth factor, the public interest, was neutral. On the one hand, allowing a plaintiff to file a case to proceed under a fictitious name obstructs “the common law rights of access to the courts and judicial records.” Id. at 9 (quoting Kamehameha, 596 F.3d at 1042). On the other hand, the public has an interest in seeing cases decided on the merits, which could be undermined by requiring plaintiff to disclose her identity because the purpose of her suit was to compel IMDb’s compliance with its privacy policies without exposing her to unwanted publicity.
However, the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff may use the judiciary to accomplish her precise goal of redressing her harm while protecting her identity. Instead, the issue is whether the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permit a Plaintiff to proceed anonymously in a case of this type. In the present case, while Plaintiff may face public ridicule and embarrassment if she elects to go forward under her real name, the injury she fears is not severe enough to justify permitting her to proceed anonymously.
Id. at 9–10 (citing Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1070). Accordingly, the court dismissed the case but gave plaintiff leave to amend the complaint by adding her real name.
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