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Doe v. Archdiocese of Atlanta

Court of Appeals of Georgia

July 15, 2014


Cert. applied for.

Pleadings; pseudonym. Fulton State Court. Before Judge Porter.

Don C. Keenan, Robertson, Bodoh & Nasrallah, Mathew G. Nasrallah, for appellent.

Smith, Gambrell & Russell, Stephen M. Forte, Dana M. Richens, for appellees.

DILLARD, Judge. Doyle, P. J., and Miller, J., concur.


Page 865

Dillard, Judge.

Jane Doe appeals from the trial court's dismissal of her lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Atlanta and Holy Cross Catholic Church (collectively, " the Church" ), on the ground that the suit, filed using a pseudonym, was a legal nullity. Because we hold that the trial court erred in concluding that the complaint was void, we reverse. We further hold that the trial court has the discretion to consider whether Doe is entitled to proceed under a pseudonym and, therefore, remand the case for consideration of that issue in a manner consistent with this opinion.

[328 Ga.App. 325] The undisputed facts are as follows. On September 4, 2012, Doe filed a complaint against the Church using the pseudonym " Jane Doe" and alleged that she, now the age of majority, had been the victim of childhood sexual abuse from a former Church employee. Three days later, Doe's counsel sent the Church a copy of the complaint with a letter revealing Doe's identity and explaining that, " given the sensitive nature of the allegations," the complaint had been filed under a pseudonym in order " to protect the identity and avoid future injury to [Doe]" and asking the Church to advise if it objected to her doing so.[1] And then on September 14, 2012, Doe filed a " notice of disclosure of identity of plaintiff Jane Doe," in which she identified herself under seal to the trial court. Each of the foregoing actions transpired prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations on Doe's claims.[2]

The Church answered and filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that Doe's complaint was a procedural nullity because it had not been filed in the name of a real person and that, as the statute of limitations had since expired, she could not amend her complaint so as to relate back to the originally filed pleading. The trial court agreed and dismissed Doe's lawsuit with prejudice. This appeal follows.

We begin by noting that this case involves two independent issues for our consideration. The first is whether Doe's filing of a lawsuit using a pseudonym rendered it a nullity, such that Doe is now barred--due to the expiration of the statute of limitations--from amending the complaint or otherwise litigating her claims against the Church. If not, the second question is whether Doe must

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amend her complaint so as to reveal her identity, or whether she may proceed with the lawsuit using a fictitious name. For the reasons set forth infra, we answer the first question in the negative and remand this case to the trial court for it to exercise its discretion in determining the second issue.

1. In general, Georgia law mandates that parties to a lawsuit identify themselves in their respective pleadings[3] and that every action be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest.[4] And prior to the passage of the Civil Practice Act, the Supreme Court of [328 Ga.App. 326] Georgia, in Western and Atlantic R. Co. v. Dalton Marble Works,[5] held that if a lawsuit is " brought in a name which is neither that of a natural person, a corporation, nor a partnership, it is a mere nullity" [6] and, as such, cannot be amended by inserting the name of the proper party in interest, " there being nothing to amend by." [7] It is this language that both the Church and trial court contend renders Doe's complaint a nullity.[8]

When passing the Civil Practice Act in 1966,[9] however, the General Assembly expressly provided that

[n]o action shall be dismissed on the ground that it is not prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest until a reasonable time has been allowed after objection for ratification of commencement of the action by, or joinder or substitution of, the real party in interest; and such ratification, joinder, or substitution shall have the same effect as if the action had been commenced in the name of the real party in interest.[10]

Furthermore, the General Assembly included an explicit mandate that parties be freely permitted to amend pleadings[11] and that " [a]ll pleadings ... be so construed as to do substantial justice." [12]

After the enactment of the Civil Practice Act, our Supreme Court reexamined the issue presented in Dalton Marble Works [13] in order to consider whether under that Act " pleadings may be amended to substitute a named party plaintiff when suit is filed in the name of a party which is not a legal entity." [14] The Court concluded that, contrary to the preexisting law, when " the party plaintiff named in a complaint is not a legal entity but is reasonably recognizable as a misnomer for a legal entity which is the real party plaintiff, the [328 Ga.App. 327] misnomer may be corrected by amendment." [15] In so doing, the Court recognized the forgiving policies contained in the Civil Practice Act, explaining that " pleadings are not an end in themselves but only a method to assist in reaching the merits of the case." [16] And since that time, Georgia's appellate courts have readily permitted amendment of complaints to substitute proper party plaintiffs in the absence of a showing of harm to the defendants.[17]

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Given the foregoing analytical framework, we conclude that the trial court erred in holding that Doe's complaint was a nullity due to her use of a pseudonym. Significantly, Doe revealed her identity to both the trial court and the Church prior to the expiration of the statute of limitations.[18] And for this reason, we reject the Church's overly rigid argument that, because Doe was not publicly identified, her complaint failed to import a natural person and should be treated as a nullity (i.e., as though Doe did not exist).[19] Doe is indeed a natural person; it is only her name that is (at least temporarily) being shielded from public disclosure. But neither the trial court nor the [328 Ga.App. 328] Church were left wondering as to who was asserting these claims, nor was either misled or deceived in any way. Under these circumstances, there is no injustice in allowing Doe's lawsuit to remain pending and, to the extent that the trial court deems it necessary to do so (see discussion infra), in permitting her to amend the complaint.[20]

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2. The next question is whether Doe must publicly reveal her identity or whether she is permitted instead to prosecute her case using a pseudonym. We leave this inquiry in the first instance to the sound discretion of the trial court.

Georgia law requires that parties disclose their names in judicial pleadings and presumes the public's right to access this information in addition to the entirety of the court records.[21] This is not merely a procedural formality. Indeed, Georgia has long recognized that the right to public access to judicial proceedings " protects litigants both present and future, because justice faces its gravest threat when courts dispense it secretly." [22] Additionally, " First Amendment guarantees [328 Ga.App. 329] are implicated when a court decides to restrict public scrutiny of judicial proceedings." [23]

But the presumption of open judicial proceedings is not absolute. Georgia law permits a court to limit or even prohibit public access to its records in exceptional circumstances if it determines " that the harm otherwise resulting to the privacy of a person in interest clearly outweighs the public interest." [24] And this Court has recognized, on at least one occasion, that a trial court may exercise its discretion to allow a party to proceed with a lawsuit under a pseudonym. In Doe v. Hall,[25] we held that the trial court retained the discretion to determine whether an HIV-positive plaintiff could use a pseudonym to prosecute a case against his doctor for improperly disclosing confidential medical information.[26]

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Likewise, although we are certainly not bound by decisions from other jurisdictions, there is a considerable body of precedent for departing from a " procedural custom fraught with constitutional overtones to accommodate a plaintiff's asserted need to proceed anonymously [328 Ga.App. 330] through the use of a fictitious name." [27] And numerous courts--both federal and state--have adopted balancing tests designed to weigh the countervailing interests involved when a plaintiff seeks to shield his or her name; and, more specifically, several have determined that claims predicated upon allegations of childhood sexual abuse may invoke a privacy interest so great as to warrant the unusual practice of allowing the plaintiff to litigate using a pseudonym.[28]

[328 Ga.App. 331] We agree with courts that have concluded that a trial court may, in extraordinary cases, " employ its sound discretion in determining whether or not a pseudonym may be used ..., considering the effects of

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such decision on the rights of the individual parties and considering the right of the public to open judicial proceedings." [29] In so doing, the ultimate test is whether the plaintiff has a " substantial privacy right which outweighs the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings." [30] And in making its determination, the trial court can consider many factors, including, but not limited to, the following: (1) whether the lawsuit involves " matters of sensitive and highly personal nature" ; (2) whether the plaintiff or an innocent non-party risks suffering physical or psychological harm if the plaintiff is identified, taking into consideration the age of the plaintiff; and (3) whether the plaintiff's anonymity imposes a risk of fundamental unfairness to the opposing party.[31] In considering the foregoing factors,[32] as well as any other relevant considerations, we emphasize that " [e]conomic harm or mere embarrassment are not sufficient to override the strong public interest in disclosure." [33]

And to the extent the trial court determines that anonymity in the case sub judice is warranted, the court is free to " fashion its order on the use of a pseudonym, as justice may require, and indeed, must ensure that the rights of the parties to full discovery is not interfered with by the use of a pseudonym." [34] The trial court should continuously [328 Ga.App. 332] monitor the proceedings so as to minimize the impact on the defendant's rights and " should permit the use of [the] plaintiff's real name [when] such use is required in order to ensure adequate discovery." [35] Finally, the trial court is free to use other devices, " such as sealing certain records and orders of nondisclosure in conjunction with the plaintiff's use of a pseudonym, in order to balance lawful discovery requirements, while providing all reasonable confidentiality.[36]

In sum, we hold that Doe's complaint filed using a pseudonym is not a legal nullity and reverse the trial court's ruling on that issue. We further remand the case for the trial court's consideration of whether Doe is permitted to proceed under a fictitious name in a manner consistent with this opinion.[37]

Judgment reversed and case remanded with direction.

Doyle, P. J., and Miller, J., concur.

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