No Pseudonymity in Challenge to Denial of Religious Exemption from Military Vaccine Mandate

Starting at U.S. Army ROTC ECP Cadet Doe v. BidenLast decision by Chief Judge BerylHowell (D.D.C. Contrary to M.D. Fla. N.D. Ill. & D. Colo. (contrary to M.D.

Plaintiff is a male ROTC Early Commissioning Program candidate (ECP), nineteen years old, who is currently a drill member of the Army National Guard. He has requested to file an anonymous action in this instant case challenging the defendants’ vaccine policies and interfering with plaintiff’s “fundamental right of free exercise of religion.” For the reasons set forth below, plaintiff’s motion is denied, subject to any further consideration by the United States District Judge to whom this case is randomly assigned….

Even though disclosure is presumptive [of party names], … [c]ourts …, in special [and rare]In certain circumstances, a party may be allowed to continue anonymously. However, a party seeking anonymity must demonstrate a need for it and identify the likely consequences if the other side is forced to act in their own names. After this showing is made, the court will need to “balance litigant’s legitimate right in anonymity with countervailing rights in full disclosure.” …

Plaintiff has not shown that his legitimate privacy rights outweigh the public interest in the details of the litigation at this stage. Plaintiff has articulated no privacy interest sufficient to rebut the presumption in favor of open proceedings….

[1.] Plaintiff asserts that pseudonymity justifies his “sincere religious convictions” and “medical decision and past infections”, which are considered “personal intimate information” justifying anonymity. Plaintiff claims, conclusively, that “[d]ecisions regarding vaccinations, illness and treatment … are just like decisions regarding birth control,” which other circuits have cited as grounds to allow a plaintiff to proceed under pseudonym.

It is difficult to see how this could be true, given that birth control options and methods involve far more personal medical and physical details than, for example, an injection or identification as a Christian. This, in fact, is what millions of Americans do around the globe. What plaintiff considers “personal intimate data” insufficient to allow for anonymity. Plaintiff does not even cite any D.C. cases. Circuit supports his position. The court would only allow limited sealing of information concerning the plaintiff’s medical history or treatment. 1. James factor weighs against permitting plaintiff to proceed pseudonymously….

[2.] [T]He stated that he was willing to take retaliatory action. [to plaintiff]It is both speculational and very minimal. Plaintiff asserts that Plaintiff is “[i]n the present climate, he is likely to be labeled as an ‘anti-vaxer’—which he is not,” and “his reputation tarnished both inside and outside of the military,” which could make him “likely to be targeted for retaliation in the course of his career.” Although the plaintiff’s claims of retaliation are speculative and the possibility of harassment or criticism is a quintessential part of any litigation, it is less serious than the level of mental harm and physical risk that is necessary for transparent legal proceedings to be effective. Qualls v. Rumsfeld (D.D.C. 2005. “Bringing litigation may subject a Plaintiff to scrutiny, criticism, and affect the way that plaintiff is seen by coworkers and their friends. But fears of embarrassment, vague, unsubstantiated fears, or retaliatory actions from higher-ups, do not allow a Plaintiff to proceed under an pseudonym.” Also see Doe v. Court of Common Pleas (W.D. Pa. Nov. 3 2017, denied request to proceed under pseudonym. Plaintiff argued “that anonymity was necessary to protect herself from unwanted media attention, and a potential negative public reaction to the allegations in her Complaint”, as well as the fact that the “public’s rights to access court proceedings .”).” being “not sufficient”. Second James factor thus weighs against granting plaintiff’s motion….

[3.] [T]This suit, which is filed against the Government, is not in the favor of plaintiff. The law clearly states that “there’s a greater public interest” when an entity or person files a lawsuit against the government. Here, plaintiff seeks an injunction “prohibiting the Defendants … from enforcing the vaccination policies challenged in this Complaint,” and the public interest in knowing the detail of the litigation that could affect government policy broadly is particularly great.

[4.] [A]Plaintiff’s right to use pseudonyms will not cause any prejudice to defendants. Plaintiff’s identity could either be revealed to the defendants by counsel or through ROTC enrollment. The defendants have no reason to suspect that permitting plaintiff to continue under pseudonym will compromise their ability to defend the action or expose them to unfairness. [Nonetheless, t]aking these factors together, plaintiff has presented no compelling justification for “the rare dispensation of pseudonymous status,” and thus has failed to demonstrate a need for secrecy or identify consequences likely to befall plaintiff if he proceeds in his own name….

It is important to note that pseudonymity can be granted more readily when someone makes purely legal challenges. These don’t focus much on the facts and thus the identity of the parties. However, this case doesn’t appear to be one.