Georgia Court of Appeals Addresses Use of Pseudonym in Injury Case

One important detail that often gets overlooked when many people think about a lawsuit is the public nature of legal proceedings. Admittedly, most cases garner little in the way of public attention. However, depending on the parties or issues involved, some are likely to pique the interest of others and consequently usher the parties into the public light. In a recent decision, Doe v. Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Georgia Court of Appeals examined issues related to anonymity raised in a personal injury lawsuit brought against a local religious institution.
The plaintiff in Doe filed a complaint on September 4, 2012, alleging that she had endured sexual abuse as a minor at the hands of an employee of the Church. In the complaint filed, the plaintiff’s actual name is never used, only a pseudonym. However, in a letter that was later sent to opposing counsel when the complaint was being served, the plaintiff was identified. In addition, 10 days following the filing of the complaint, the plaintiff also filed a notice of disclosure under court seal that identified her identity. All these acts happened before expiration of the five-year statute of limitations that applies to civil actions brought to recover damages for childhood sexual abuse. See OCGA § 9-3-33.1 (b) (requiring that action must be filed within five years of reaching the age of majority). The defendant answered the complaint and also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the initial complaint was a procedural nullity because it had not been filed under a real name. In addition, the defendant further argued that since the statute of limitations had elapsed by that point and the complaint could not be amended and relate back to the improper complaint originally filed, the case should be dismissed. The trial court concurred and granted the motion to dismiss.
The Court of Appeals, however, unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision. There is a general requirement under Georgia law that an action be prosecuted in the real name of the party of interest, see OCGA § 9-11-17 (a). In addition, the Supreme Court of Georgia has held that a lawsuit “brought in a name which is neither that of a natural person, a corporation, nor a partnership, it is a mere nullity” and, accordingly, cannot be amended by inserting the name of the proper party in interest, “there being nothing to amend.” W. & A.R. Co. v. Dalton Marble Works, 122 Ga. 774, 775 (50 SE 978) (1905). However, the Court of Appeals noted that this decision predated Georgia’s passage of the Civil Practice Act, which expressly provides that “no matter shall be dismissed on the ground that it is not prosecuted in the name of the real party of interest until a reasonable time has been allowed ….” OCGA § 9-11-17 (a). Following passage of the Act, the Supreme Court of Georgia reexamined the issue presented in Dalton Marble Works and held that 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 misnomer may be corrected by amendment.” Block v. Voyager Life Ins. Co., 251 Ga. 162, 163 (1) (303 SE2d 742) (1983). Accordingly, the court held that the trial court erred by holding that the original complaint was a nullity that could not be amended.

Beyond the legal point, however, the court went on to discuss the issue of pseudonymity in civil litigation generally. Although Georgia law presumes the public’s right to access judicial information and requires that a party disclose his or her name in judicial proceedings, the court noted that the public’s access to information is not absolute. Instead, a court may in its discretion limit access to information when “the harm otherwise resulting to the privacy of a person in interest clearly outweighs the public interest.” Case law related to pseudonymity in Georgia is limited, but the court looked to both state and federal law to design a general test for trial courts to use when determining whether to permit pseudonymity. Among the factors considered in this test are: “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.”
Although a litigant may have a reasonable fear of public scrutiny, one should not let this apprehension deter one from asserting rights and pursuing claims. As the court held in this case, one still has ways of effectively utilizing the legal system while maintaining some semblance of privacy. It is important for a person who is concerned about privacy to find competent counsel who can effectively argue for why his or her privacy should be maintained. If you have a possible legal claim but are uncertain about whether to assert it based on issues related to privacy, the attorneys at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have extensive experience in civil litigation and can assist you in determining whether it would be possible to request anonymity in your Atlanta personal injury case. For a free case consultation, click here or call 1-800-487-8669.
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