Judge rejects pseudonym use in lawsuit over alleged rape

December 16, 2017

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Connecticut judge has issued an unusual opinion rejecting the use of pseudonyms by two college students in a civil court case over an alleged rape, saying secrecy surrounding such cases has only allowed sexual assaultive behavior to “flourish.”

Superior Court Judge David Sheridan in Hartford released his ruling Dec. 6. It came in the case of a University of Connecticut student who alleges in a lawsuit that another student sexually assaulted her on campus while she was incapacitated from alcohol and marijuana use and could not consent to sexual activity in September 2015.

Both the accuser and the accused asked Sheridan to allow them to use pseudonyms in the case. The accused male student denies the allegations, and there is no record of a criminal prosecution.

Some judges around the country have allowed the use of pseudonyms in alleged rape cases in civil court, while others have not. The issue typically involves weighing the privacy rights of the people involved in the lawsuits versus society’s interest in open courts and how the justice system deals with harmful behavior.

Sheridan wrote that the accuser and the accused appeared only to want to protect themselves from embarrassment and/or economic harm, which are not justification to use pseudonyms. He also warned against the dangers of secrecy in such cases.

“Sexual assault in all its forms ... has caused enormous damage to our society,” Sheridan wrote. “The secrecy and lack of candor surrounding this behavior has only allowed it to flourish. The perceived need for a pseudonym to avoid embarrassment associated with being a victim of sexual assault or a defendant accused of sexual assault has only exacerbated the ‘stigmatization.’”

Attorneys in the case did not return messages seeking comment.

The Associated Press is not naming the accuser and the accused. The AP generally does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted.

A court motion filed by the accuser said her privacy rights outweigh the presumption that court proceedings should be open to the public, “particularly due to the sensitivity of the issues involved in this case, the stigmatization of being the victim of an alleged rape, and the irreparable damage that continuing as a named plaintiff will entail.”

The accused student also cited the potential fallout from being named.

“A person who is wrongfully accused of sexual assault faces severely damaging and enduring stigmatization in our community,” his lawyer wrote in a court motion.

Jayne Ressler, an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School, said there is a divide among judges around the country about whether to grant anonymity and there is no uniform understanding of privacy rights in such cases.

Ressler believes pseudonyms should be allowed.

“There is so much risk and so much humiliation and potential embarrassment and shaming that comes along with being a plaintiff in a lawsuit,” she said. “We desperately need anonymity in these cases to allow plaintiffs to feel free to bring their claims, not feel threatened, not feel stigmatized.”

In a case in Los Angeles comparable with the UConn lawsuit, a judge ruled that a woman who accused pro basketball star Derrick Rose and two friends of rape could not remain anonymous during trial because jurors could interpret the judge’s permission to use a pseudonym as a kind of affirmation of the allegations. Rose and the two other men were cleared of wrongdoing last year.

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