Zuegel v. Mountain View Police Department (MVPD) et al

Filing 16


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1 2 3 4 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 5 NORTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 6 SAN JOSE DIVISION 7 8 JAMES R. ZUEGEL, Plaintiff, 9 v. 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 12 MOUNTAIN VIEW POLICE DEPARTMENT (MVPD), et al., Case No. 17-cv-03249-BLF ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF’S MOTION TO PROCEED UNDER PSEUDONYM, CHANGE CASE CAPTION, AND REDACT SURNAME ON PRIVACY GROUNDS Defendants. 13 14 Plaintiff James Zuegel (“Plaintiff”) has filed a Motion to Proceed Under Pseudonym, 15 Change Case Caption, and Redact Surname. See ECF 14. Defendants oppose in part. See ECF 15. 16 17 Pursuant to Civil Local Rule 7-1(b), the Court finds Plaintiff’s motion suitable for submission without oral argument and hereby VACATES the hearing on Plaintiff’s motion scheduled for 18 February 8, 2018. The Court has considered the briefing, as well as applicable law, and hereby 19 GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Plaintiff’s motion. 20 I. 21 BACKGROUND The events giving rise to the underlying causes of action involve Plaintiff’s alleged 22 inappropriate touching of a minor girl in the lobby of a YMCA. See Amended Complaint, ECF 10, 23 ¶¶ 32-35. Based on police interviews with the minor and her mother, Officers from the Mountain 24 View Police Department allegedly entered Plaintiff’s home at 9:33 p.m. on June 7, 2015, without 25 either an arrest warrant or a search warrant, and arrested him in the presence of his wife and their 26 autistic son. Id. ¶¶ 37-39. Plaintiff originally filed this action pro se, alleging violations of 27 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and various state law claims against the Mountain View Police Department, the 28 1 City of Mountain View, and Mountain View Police Officers Patrick Ward, Britton Moore, and 2 Marco Garcia (collectively, “Defendants”). See ECF 1. 3 On July 11, 2017, Plaintiff obtained counsel in this matter. See ECF 8. An Amended 4 Complaint against Defendants was filed on September 13, 2017. See ECF 10. In the Amended 5 Complaint, the pseudonym “Jim Roe” was substituted for Plaintiff’s name throughout the 6 pleading. Id. The Amended Complaint also altered the name of the minor child involved to 7 remove references to her surname. Id. A few days later, Plaintiff filed the instant motion. ECF 14. 8 Plaintiff now seeks to substitute the pseudonym “Jim Roe” for Plaintiff’s true name in the case 9 caption and throughout documents filed in this case. Id. In addition, although the Amended Complaint does not include the full name of the minor child whom Plaintiff allegedly touched, the 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 original complaint does contain this information. As such, Plaintiff seeks to redact the original 12 complaint to display only the initial letter of the surname of the minor. Id. 13 Defendants concede that the original complaint improperly referenced the full name of the 14 minor victim and at least one friend who witnessed the incident. See ECF 15. Defendants stated 15 they would agree to stipulate to an order redacting the minors’ names from the public record. Id. 16 The Court finds that compelling reasons exist to seal the surnames of the minors, and the 17 requested redaction is narrowly tailored to sealable information. Kamakana v. City & Cty. of 18 Honolulu, 447 F.3d 1172, 1178-79 (9th Cir. 2006); see also Civ. L.R. 79-5(b). Accordingly, the 19 Court GRANTS IN PART Plaintiff’s motion on the grounds that only the initial letter of the 20 surnames of the two minor girls should be displayed in the original complaint to protect their 21 privacy. The Clerk shall lock the original complaint (ECF 1) and Plaintiff is instructed to file a 22 redacted version of the original complaint that includes only the initial letter of the minors’ 23 surnames. 24 On the other hand, Defendants oppose Plaintiff’s motion to proceed under a pseudonym 25 and to redact the case caption and previous documents filed in this action to reflect his 26 pseudonym. See ECF 15. For the reasons that follow, the Court agrees with Defendants and 27 DENIES IN PART Plaintiff’s motion to proceed under a pseudonym. The Court’s denial is 28 without prejudice to Plaintiff making specific requests to seal portions of pleadings or documents. 2 1 II. PROCEEDING UNDER PSEUDONYM 2 The use of fictitious names is directly at odds with the public’s common law right of 3 access to judicial proceedings. See Does I thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d 1058, 4 1067 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589, 598–99 (1978); 5 EEOC v. Erection Co., Inc., 900 F.2d 168, 169 (9th Cir.1990)). Moreover, Federal Rule of Civil 6 Procedure 10 requires a complaint to “name all the parties.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(a). Litigants may 7 preserve their anonymity in judicial proceedings only “in special circumstances when the party’s 8 need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to the opposing party and the public’s interest in knowing 9 the party’s identity.” Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d at 1068–69. Despite the general rule requiring plaintiffs to proceed under their true names, the Ninth Circuit has identified three 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 situations in which parties have previously been permitted to proceed anonymously: (1) when 12 identification creates a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm; (2) when anonymity is 13 necessary to preserve privacy in a matter of a sensitive and highly personal nature; and (3) when 14 the anonymous party is compelled to admit his or her intention to engage in illegal conduct, 15 thereby risking criminal prosecution. Id., 214 F.3d at 1068. Moreover, courts are to consider 16 whether a plaintiff’s “need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to the opposing party and the 17 public’s interest in knowing the party’s identity.” Id. 18 Plaintiff argues that the first and second exceptions to the general rule of proceeding under 19 his true name are applicable here: (1) that disclosure of the content of the complaint in connection 20 with Plaintiff’s real name would subject him and his family to risk of “retaliation and mental 21 harm.” ECF 14 at 3; and (2) that anonymity is necessary to preserve his privacy in a matter of a 22 sensitive and highly personal nature. Id. The Court addresses each situation in turn because they 23 implicate distinct legal principles, although Plaintiff’s arguments address the risk of retaliatory 24 harm in conjunction with the privacy implications at stake. 25 First, where a plaintiff seeks to proceed under a pseudonym to “shield the anonymous 26 party from retaliation,” the Ninth Circuit has instructed the district court to evaluate the following 27 five factors to determine the need for anonymity: “(1) the severity of the threatened harm, (2) the 28 reasonableness of the anonymous party’s fears, ... (3) the anonymous party’s vulnerability to such 3 1 retaliation,” (4) the prejudice to the opposing party at each stage of the proceeding, and (5) the 2 public interest. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d at 1068 (internal citations omitted); accord Doe 3 v. Kamehameha Sch./Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate, 596 F.3d 1036, 1042 (9th Cir. 2010). 4 At this stage of the litigation, Plaintiff has provided very little evidence of a risk of retaliation and harm and merely suggests that continued disclosure of his real name will subject 6 him to hypothetical reputational harm in the future. Plaintiff argues that the use of his real name 7 in conjunction with the allegations in the Amended Complaint “could” subject Plaintiff and his 8 family to “a risk” of retaliation and mental harm. Plaintiff points out that the docket of this case is 9 publicly available through a simple Google search of his name. ECF 14 at 3. He further implies 10 that disclosure of this lawsuit could harm his reputation within his tight-knit community. Id.; see 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 5 also Declaration of Violet Grayson (“Grayson Decl.”), ECF 14 at 6, ¶ 2. Plaintiff argues that “it is 12 foreseeable” that persons meeting Plaintiff in a professional capacity could Google him and find 13 the docket for this case. See ECF 14 at 3. 14 Plaintiff himself does not submit a declaration containing evidence of a risk of retaliation 15 or mental harm for the Court to consider, but rather his counsel declares that “[i]t is my 16 professional opinion that this case should go forward with use of a pseudonym for Plaintiff.” 17 Grayson Decl. ¶ 3. The actual evidence before the Court, rather than attorney argument, only 18 speaks to potential retaliation to the extent counsel relays Plaintiff’s anxiety that his daughter’s 19 career and reputation “might be” injured by disclosure of this lawsuit. Id. ¶ 4. Moreover, counsel 20 testifies that Plaintiff did not understand when he filed his original complaint that a Google search 21 of his name would lead to the docket in this case. Id. ¶ 3. The Court is left to infer that Plaintiff’s 22 friends or neighbors will access the docket, resulting in unspecified reputational harm. 23 Defendants point out that there is insufficient evidence upon which the Court can conclude 24 that there is a need for anonymity in this case to shield Plaintiff from retaliation and mental harm. 25 ECF 15 at 3. In addition, Defendants have provided evidence that Plaintiff was previously the 26 subject of a criminal prosecution arising out of the same incident. See Declaration of Jon A. 27 Haeberlin (“Haeberlin Decl.”), ECF 15-1, Ex. A (“Misdemeanor Complaint”). The criminal 28 4 1 complaint was filed over two years ago and remains publicly accessible through an online search. 2 Haeberlin Decl. ¶ 4. 3 The Court has considered the evidence in the record and the arguments of the parties with 4 respect to the need to protect Plaintiff from retaliation and mental harm, and finds that the factors 5 set out by the Ninth Circuit in Advanced Textile Corp. weigh against permitting Plaintiff to 6 proceed anonymously at this stage. 214 F.3d at 1068. Through his attorney, Plaintiff has 7 articulated a risk of reputational harm to him and his family, but does not assert any risk of 8 physical threats or danger. Moreover, the dearth of evidence means that the Court has no ability to 9 evaluate the severity of the alleged reputational harm, the reasonableness of Plaintiff’s fears, or his vulnerability to such retaliation other than the fact that Plaintiff is from a small town. Plaintiff 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 10 also does not articulate how, in light of the public availability of the criminal allegations against 12 him, the civil suit alone subjects him to the sort of reputational harm he faces. Finally, the Court 13 takes into account the prejudice to Defendant and the public interest, particularly with respect to 14 proceeding under a pseudonym during discovery and at trial. Even if, as Plaintiff suggests, 15 Defendants already know Plaintiff’s real name, the prejudice results from withholding Plaintiff’s 16 name from third parties, and eventually from the jury. 17 The Court has also considered Plaintiff’s argument that other courts have frequently 18 permitted plaintiffs to proceed under pseudonyms in cases involving sex offenses or sex offender 19 registration. ECF 14 at 3 (collecting cases). However, the Amended Complaint alleges that 20 Plaintiff ultimately pled no contest to a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct, which does not 21 trigger sex offender registration. See ECF 10 ¶ 48. Although the Court recognizes that there were 22 initially allegations involving sexual conduct brought against Plaintiff, this case is distinct from 23 Doe v. County of El Dorado, Case No. 13-CV-01433, 2013 WL 6230342 (E.D. Cal. Dec. 2, 2013). 24 Although the plaintiff in County of El Dorado also lived in a small town, he was a convicted sex 25 offender who challenged the defendant’s sex-offender ordinance as violating the Constitution. 26 2013 WL 6230342, at *5. In support of his motion to proceed under a pseudonym, the plaintiff 27 provided declarations from himself, his attorney who had previous experience working with 28 convicted sex offenders, as well as an academic who studies sex offenders. Id. at *3. All three 5 1 declarants attested to the possibility of physical harm if plaintiff’s identity was not disguised. Id. 2 The district court ultimately found that the plaintiff could proceed under a pseudonym. Id. at *6. 3 Plaintiff here does not allege or provide evidence of any risk of physical harm, specific risk of 4 reputational harm, and does not explain how he is similarly situated to any of the plaintiffs in the 5 cases he cites. 6 Finally, with regards to his privacy, Plaintiff has not demonstrated why anonymity is necessary in light of the presumption of access to judicial proceedings and Rule 10(a)’s 8 requirement that all parties to litigation be named. The Court ultimately balances the need for 9 anonymity with the interests weighing in favor of open judicial proceedings. See Advanced Textile 10 Corp., 214 F.3d at 1069. Plaintiff cites to no case supporting his need to proceed anonymously on 11 United States District Court Northern District of California 7 the basis that information in the docket is sensitive or highly personal. Plaintiff does not even 12 point out what information on the docket is sensitive or highly personal, but the Court infers that 13 he is concerned about the nature of the allegations and the initial charges brought against him 14 arising from the incident at the YMCA. Plaintiff argues only that it is foreseeable that persons (in 15 other words, the public) could search for Plaintiff’s name and “learn highly personal information, 16 which they have no legitimate need to know.” ECF 14 at 3-4. Yet the criminal complaint against 17 Plaintiff remains publicly available. In addition, Plaintiff chose to file this lawsuit and drafted his 18 allegations including the underlying facts of the case. Defendants argue that in these 19 circumstances, Plaintiff “shouldn’t be permitted to make highly-charged allegations of civil rights 20 violations on the one hand – including coercive and malicious conduct – while simultaneous [sic] 21 hiding under the cloak of anonymity.” ECF 15 at 3. Based on the evidence before the Court, and 22 the lack of authority to the contrary, the Court finds that Plaintiff is not entitled to proceed under a 23 pseudonym on the grounds of privacy. 24 For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s motion to proceed under a pseudonym is DENIED. 25 Denial of this motion is without prejudice to Plaintiff making specific requests to seal portions of 26 pleadings or documents. Moreover, the Magistrate Judge presiding over discovery issues in this 27 proceeding also has the authority under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) to issue protective 28 orders limiting disclosure of Plaintiff’s name to the extent necessary and without prejudicing 6 1 Defendants’ ability to litigate the case. Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(c); Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d at 2 1069. 3 III. ORDER 4 Plaintiff’s motion to proceed anonymously is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN 5 PART. Plaintiff’s request to redact the surname of the minor on privacy grounds is GRANTED. 6 Plaintiff’s request to proceed under pseudonym and change the case caption is DENIED. 7 8 9 The Clerk shall lock the original Complaint filed on June 6, 2017. See ECF 1. Plaintiff is instructed to file the following documents in the record on or before October 25, 2017: 1. surnames of the minors in accordance with this Order. 10 United States District Court Northern District of California 11 File a redacted version of the original complaint in the record that redacts only the 2. File a revised Amended Complaint in the record that uses Plaintiff’s real name. 12 This version of the Amended Complaint shall be deemed the operative complaint in 13 this action. 14 15 16 17 18 Dated: October 18, 2017 ______________________________________ BETH LABSON FREEMAN United States District Judge 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 7

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