Doe v. Saul

Filing 9


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1 2 3 4 5 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 6 7 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 8 9 10 MF, Plaintiff, United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 v. 13 ANDREW SAUL, No. C 20-08742 WHA 14 Defendant. ORDER GRANTING REQUEST TO PROCEED PSEUDONYMOUSLY 15 16 Plaintiff, appealing an adverse decision of the Social Security Administration, seeks 17 leave to proceed under her initials, “MF,” to preserve her privacy. Unusual circumstances, the 18 particularities of the subject matter, and the lack of prejudice to the Administrator (who already 19 knows plaintiff’s identity) counsel in plaintiff’s favor. Leave is GRANTED. 20 In general, the public has every right to inspect court records. Nixon v. Warner 21 Commnc’ns, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 597 (1978). Our court of appeals has established a strong 22 presumption in favor of access. The reasons are plain. Public confidence in the administration 23 of justice rests on accountability — knowing to whom courts afford relief, against whom 24 judgments run, and why. See Ctr. for Auto Safety v. Chrysler Grp., 809 F.3d 1092, 1096–97 25 (9th Cir. 2016) (citing United States v. Amodeo, 71 F.3d 1044, 1048 (2d Cir. 1995)). 26 But public scrutiny has its bounds. Courts may seal select records, such as those tending 27 to spite, scandalize, or irreparably harm. See id. at 1097. And, relevant for our purposes, both 28 the United States Supreme Court and our court of appeals have long recognized the need for 1 certain parties to proceed pseudonymously where identification might subject one to 2 “harassment, injury, ridicule or personal embarrassment,” such as an inmate cooperating as a 3 witness, a mother bringing an Establishment Clause claim in a small town, or, famously, a 4 woman seeking an abortion. See United States v. Doe, 655 F.2d 920, 922 fn. 1 (9th Cir. 1980); 5 e.g., Doe v. Madison School Dist. No. 321, 147 F.3d 832 (9th Cir. 1998); Roe v. Wade, 410 6 U.S. 113 (1973). 7 In Does I thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corporation, our court of appeals permitted textile-factory workers in Saipan, who feared deportation to and imprisonment upon arrival in 9 China, to sue pseudonymously for wage and hour violations and articulated the standard for 10 evaluating requests to obscure a party’s name. “[A] party may preserve his or her anonymity 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 8 in judicial proceedings in special circumstances when the party’s need for anonymity 12 outweighs prejudice to the opposing party and the public’s interest in knowing the party’s 13 identity.” Courts balance the severity of, the party’s vulnerability to, and the reasonable 14 proximity of the threatened harm against any prejudice to the opposing party and public 15 interest in disclosure. 214 F.3d 1058, 1068–69 (9th Cir. 2000). 16 Our subject matter also carries unique considerations. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17 5.2(c) denies members of the public electronic access to Social Security court records, except 18 for the docket sheet, orders, or opinions. Public inspection may occur in person at the Clerk’s 19 office instead. The Advisory Committee explained that the Rule affords such protection 20 because of “the prevalence of sensitive information” in Social Security filings. Indeed, the 21 Judicial Conference of the United States has urged courts to refer to Social Security appellants 22 by first name and last initial in orders or opinions to safeguard the Rule’s privacy concerns 23 while preserving public access to such decisions. Hon. Wm. Terrell Hodges, Memorandum, 24 Privacy Concerns Regarding Social Security & Immigration Opinions, Comm. on Court 25 Admin. & Case Mgmt. (May 1, 2018), 26 suggestion_cacm_0.pdf. In other words, the baseline here would not be disclosure of MF’s full 27 name, but only of her first name and last initial. So our present question narrows to whether 28 MF may abbreviate her first name as well. 2 1 This order finds that she may. First, there will be no prejudice to the Administrator. 2 MF’s complaint identifies her by the last four digits of her Social Security number and the date 3 of the adverse decision. 4 Second, this order notes that MF has a distinctive name, at least for an English-language 5 based court system, which undercuts the primary purpose of using first names and last initials 6 in Social Security cases. To effectively obscure MF’s identity, per the Judicial Conference’s 7 application of Rule 5.2(c), she should be permitted to proceed by her initials. 8 9 Third, MF articulates a reasonably proximate and significant harm should her identity be disclosed. At bottom, MF holds a compelling personal privacy interest in the confidentiality of her medical records. But two other risks manifest. It appears that a toxic, abusive, and high- 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 stress work environment culminated in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and major 12 depressive disorder with anxious distress and melancholic features about a decade ago. MF 13 has fallen into self-isolation and been unable to work. Her psychotherapist states that, aside 14 from the stigma still attached to mental disability in our society, in her professional opinion, 15 disclosure of MF’s identity would aggravate her already vulnerable mental condition. MF also 16 fears mistreatment or abandonment by her family, from whom she has struggled to hide her 17 condition for the last decade (Dkt. Nos. 6-1, 6-4; 8). 18 While perhaps, for the sake of argument, the harms feared here, MF’s mental distress or 19 her family’s abandonment at the disclosure of her identity, may not be reasonable reactions in 20 and of themselves, that view sidesteps our inquiry. We focus not on the reasonability of the 21 harm itself but, rather, whether a reasonable person would view the threat as credible, whatever 22 it may be — just as our court of appeals found credible and real the unquestionably 23 unreasonable threat of deportation from a territory of the United States to imprisonment in the 24 People’s Republic of China in retaliation for complaints against working conditions. See 25 Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1071–72. So too here. MF faces a reasonably credible threat of 26 harm, without judgment as to the reasonableness of the harm itself. 27 Fourth, the threatened harm here outweighs the public interest in disclosure of MF’s 28 name first name. As the Judicial Conference recognized in recommending that Social Security 3 1 appellants be permitted to abbreviate their last names, the public interest in disclosure here lies 2 in reviewing the conditions that entitle one to Social Security benefits and not in putting names 3 to individual medical records. Indeed, as our court of appeals recognized, “[t]he public also 4 has an interest in seeing this case decided on the merits.” Between the use of a full name 5 dissuading suit and a decision on the merits with abbreviations, the public interest favors 6 resolution of this case on the merits. See Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1073. It is also worth 7 noting that under Rule 5(c), this case is not entirely sealed from the public. One with a good- 8 faith interest in reviewing the records and holding this Court to account will still be able to 9 access the records on file with the Clerk’s office, public health permitting. The change here is 10 simply that we will not be broadcasting MF’s name and records to the public. United States District Court Northern District of California 11 The motion is GRANTED. MF may proceed by her initials in all filings. The 12 Administrator shall please do the same, though no records already in existence need be 13 modified. The Clerk shall please update the case caption. 14 IT IS SO ORDERED. 15 16 Dated: February 18, 2021. 17 18 WILLIAM ALSUP UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 4

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