Transgender Applicant’s Name Change Application May Be Filed Under Seal

The New Jersey Appellate Section held this meeting last week. The Matter of T.I.C.C. To Assume A.B.C. (by Judge Michael Haas and Judges Hany Makla, Stephanie Ann Mitterhoff)

A.B.C.C. is an appellant who was transgender and sought to have his name changed to reflect his gender identity on his identity documents. In his application appellant presented evidence that transgender persons are at particular risk of being attacked based on their identities. He also requested the sealing of his record of name changes to safeguard him against violence and discrimination. The court granted appellant’s request. We have reviewed the evidence and concluded that appellant has demonstrated sufficient cause to seal this record. Therefore, we reverse the trial court’s denial of appellant’s motion, order that the record be sealed, and remand for any necessary further proceedings….

[W]We are happy that appellant proved good cause for sealing the records of his application to change names. First, it is clear that the record strongly supports the conclusion “disclosure of this information will likely cause an clearly defined and grave injury to appellant.” The second is that the record fully supports appellant’s conclusion that his “interest in privacy significantly outweighs” the assumption that all records of the court or administrative courts are available for inspection under R[ule] 1:38.”

These two prongs are connected in the case of appellant’s “clearly determined and grave injury”, which is his violation of “interests in privacy” as transgender. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more intimate, personal, and private matter than whether a person’s gender identity conforms with the sex they were assigned at birth, typically based upon the existence and appearance of their reproductive organs, and their chromosomal makeup….

The trial court misunderstood the law and denied appellant’s motion. Some past case law could have dealt with threats or physical violence. The court does not believe that Rule 1:38-11(1) requires the movant to have suffered physical injury or threat of harm. The rule doesn’t require that the movant has already been subject to physical injury or threat of harm. In fact, the language of Rule 1:38-11(b)(1) evidences an intent to prevent harm from occurring….

The court heard evidence from the appellant, which showed that transgender persons are victims of harassment, violence and discrimination based on their gender identity. It is also common in the law. Accordingly, there was no reason for the court to discount appellant’s fears, or assume they were unfounded….

The other side of this ledger shows that the public only interest in name-change applications is to protect against people who seek to avoid criminal prosecutions, avoid creditors or commit criminal or civil fraud. There are no indications that appellant seeks to avoid criminal prosecutions or avoid creditors. Appellee also informed the Division [of Criminal Justice, Records and Identification Section,]According to Rule 472-3, the Division was required to approve appellant’s motion. Appellee’s motion was granted after a fair review of the law.

In denying appellant’s motion to seal his record and the motion of appellant for reconsideration, the trial court considered several irrelevant factors. In part because appellant was already openly revealing that he was transgender, the court rejected his motions. But that didn’t mean appellant had to be forced to make this information public, even to those who could cause him harm, to get a name change that confirms his gender identity. The purpose of sealing the record was to protect appellant’s right to share his transgender identity only with those he trusts, thus avoiding the psychological and possibly physical harm he would suffer by making the information public….