Federal Court Refuses To Allow Revenge Porn Victim To Remain Anonymous

The US District Court for the District of Nevada handed down a ruling this week denying the request of the female firefighter at the center of a revenge porn scandal in the Las Vegas Fire Department, to proceed anonymously. The firefighter, who up to this point has been referred to as Jane Doe, filed suit in March accusing the City of Las Vegas, the City of Henderson, and 12 named employees with sexual harassment, discrimination and violating her rights.

Doe claims that her ex-boyfriend, Nathan Hannig, a firefighter in Henderson, improperly shared an intimate video of her, and that the sharing and watching of the video within the Las Vegas Fire Department created a hostile work environment for her.

The city objected to Doe proceeding anonymously, arguing her allegations have subjected the defendants’ reputations to attack, including the possibility of criminal charges for sharing the video. Quoting from the decision: “Defendants point out that Plaintiff wishes to be protected from embarrassment while subjecting them to it.”

In deciding the case, US District Court Judge Brenda Weksler stated:

  • Plaintiff requests to proceed anonymously to avoid physical and economic retaliation.
  • She also expresses concerns about the likelihood of being hired by another fire department should her identity be revealed.
  • In addition, she fears public condemnation based on the nature of the video involved in this case and notes the effect the distribution of this video has had on her personal and professional life.
  • Firmly embedded in the American judicial system is a presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.
  • That is why our court system has a default preference for openness, and parties are allowed to use pseudonyms “in the ‘unusual case’ when nondisclosure of the party’s identity ‘is necessary … to protect a person from harassment, injury, ridicule or personal embarrassment.'”
  • If such unusual or special circumstances exist, the district court has discretion to permit a party to remain anonymous so long as “the party’s need for anonymity outweighs [1] prejudice to the opposing party and [2] the public’s interest in knowing the party’s identity.”
  • Applying this balancing test, courts have permitted plaintiffs to use pseudonyms in three situations: (1) when identification creates a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm; (2) when anonymity is necessary “to preserve privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature”; and (3) when the anonymous party is “compelled to admit [his or her] intention to engage in illegal conduct, thereby risking criminal prosecution[.]”
  • The court agrees that the videotape in question could involve a highly personal and sensitive matter.
  • But the surrounding facts of this case do not suggest the Plaintiff has taken precautions to preserve anonymity.
  • Here, the Plaintiff purposefully availed herself of news media, broadcasting the case and putting it in the public eye.
  • While her name was not used, she facilitated others’ ability to learn of the existence of the case, including other fire departments where she may now seek employment.
  • In this same vein, the evidence preservation letter Plaintiff sent identifies her by name.
  • While the Plaintiff points out that having her name as part of an evidence preservations letter cannot be equated to disclosing her name to the public at large, the controlling fact is that her actions do not indicate the desire to maintain privacy.
  • It is true that in many cases the importance of an action may not be linked to the identity of the party bringing a claim.
  • In this case, however, the Plaintiff put the case in the public’s eye, undermining the need to proceed anonymously and strengthening the public’s interest in the case.
  • Like in any other case, openness in judicial proceedings fosters the press’ ability to research the litigants’ backgrounds (which may bear on matters pertaining to credibility) and the potential motivations for suing.
  • That information may be central to the public’s broader understanding of the case.
  • Allowing the Plaintiff to proceed without using her true name undermines these important values.
  • While there is no identifiable prejudice to Defendants in defending this case should the plaintiff be allowed to remain anonymous, Plaintiff cannot show that the need for anonymity in this case outweighs the public’s interest in the proceedings.
  • This court is sympathetic to Plaintiff’s concerns, but the facts of this case do not overcome the paramount importance of open courts. This court would fail its obligation to the public by allowing the Plaintiff to remain anonymous.

Doe now has until July 25, 2019 to enter an amended complaint identifying herself, file an appeal, or dismiss the action. Here is a copy of the ruling:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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