Seeking Justice and Safeguarding Privacy: When You Can Use a Fictitious Name to Litigate Your New York Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Because sexual harassment actions are inherently intertwined with issues of sex and sexuality and almost always involve a worker who was victimized in a highly intimate way, a victim may feel torn between pursuing justice and protecting her privacy. Fortunately, though, there may be an option for those who have endured workplace sexual harassment to both hold accountable those responsible and safeguard her privacy. Doing so may require the deployment of a unique set of civil litigation tools, which is why you should make sure you have an experienced New York City sexual harassment lawyer handling your case.

A sexual harassment case making its way through the New York courts right now is an example of this. The worker who suffered the alleged harassment was, at the time, a 22-year-old woman who had just graduated college and had never before held a professional job when she started working in the marketing department of a business and finance publisher in September.

According to the complaint, the woman’s direct supervisor began harassing her just a few weeks into her employment by making unwanted advances. By January, the harassment had allegedly escalated to unwanted touching and inappropriate emails and messages. By February, the harassment escalated to drugging and raping the woman, with a second rape occurring one month later, according to the lawsuit.

Allegedly, between the first and second rapes, the supervisor even scheduled a one-on-one meeting at work where, in a conference room at the employer’s headquarters, the supervisor made demands upon the woman regarding her use of condoms with “any boyfriends she had” and indicated his desire to have unprotected sex with the young subordinate.

We know from the court filings that the employer was a major publisher headquartered in Midtown. We know that the supervisor was the company’s global business director of its newsletter division.

What we don’t know is the subordinate’s name… and that’s by design. In all of the publicly available court documents, she is identified by the fictitious name “Margaret Doe.”

A ‘Substantial Privacy Right’ and Proof of Harm

There are only a limited set of circumstances in which a plaintiff can proceed with a civil lawsuit using a pseudonym, as the law has a strong preference for “open trials.” Part of that standard for openness involves the parties coming forward publicly, as opposed to litigating in anonymity.

The law does, however, recognize that anonymity may be appropriate when the case “implicates a substantial privacy right.” For example, back in 2015, the Appellate Division, First Department noted that a woman’s allegation that her former boyfriend had given her genital herpes implicated a substantial privacy right because herpes was a sexually transmitted disease.

The law, however, requires you to demonstrate more than just the implication of a substantial privacy right. One thing that you can use to meet that burden is evidence that disclosure of your true identity would cause you to suffer “physical or mental injury.”

Another critical thing that you will want to demonstrate to the court is that allowing you to proceed under a false name will not impair the accused’s ability to mount a defense. A defendant’s ability to show that your anonymity will hinder their efforts to defend themselves can be a strong factor weighing against your proceeding under a pseudonym.

The woman in this ongoing case was entitled to the protection of a pseudonym, according to a recent Appellate Division ruling. The court pointed out that the woman’s allegations included multiple alleged instances of non-consensual sexual contact and sexual intercourse between her and her alleged harasser, thus establishing her “privacy interest.”

On top of the allegations, the woman had affidavits from the psychologist and the psychiatrist who were treating her. Those documents were “compelling” proof that making the woman disclose her identity would have “severe consequences for her mental health,” according to the court. That was enough to trigger a right to continue proceeding under a pseudonym.

Furthermore, the court determined that allowing this woman to proceed as “Margaret Doe” would not harm the defense’s efforts. The alleged harasser already knew the woman’s name and the identities of her potential witnesses. Those facts blunted any argument that the woman’s anonymity would hinder the defense.

Each sexual harassment presents its own set of legal challenges. It also presents its own set of personal challenges for the worker who endured the harassment and must now seek justice in a court of law. Whatever challenges your case presents, count on the thoughtful, respectful, and diligent New York City sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates to meet your needs and the needs of your case. We’ve successfully helped countless victims and we’re here to be your partner in getting justice. Contact us online or at (212) 248-7431 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.

Contact Information