Is denial of a plaintiff’s request to bring suit without disclosing their identity within the “‘small class’ of non-final orders that are deemed final and immediately appealable” under the collateral order doctrine? Doe v. Village of Deerfield, No. 15-2069, slip op. at 4 (7th Cir. Apr. 12, 2016). The Seventh Circuit considered that question for the first time last week.

In 2014, an individual sued the Village of Deerfield, Illinois, and two individuals. The plaintiff, who identified himself using the fictitious name “John Doe,” claimed malicious prosecution and violation of his federal civil rights. He alleged that, as a result of the individual defendants’ false statements to a Village police officer, he had been arrested and prosecuted for violating two municipal ordinances. He further alleged that, even after learning the individual defendants’ statements had been false, the Village continued with the prosecution. John Doe asserts the Village engaged in this course of conduct out of a desire to retaliate against him for a previous lawsuit he filed against a Village police officer.

In response to John Doe’s complaint, the defendants moved to dismiss because Doe failed to provide his true name in the caption, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a). Doe opposed the motion and separately moved to proceed anonymously. The district court denied Doe’s motion to proceed anonymously and granted the motion to dismiss. The district court allowed, however, that Doe could amend his complaint to include his real name and then proceed with his claims. Instead, Doe appealed both the dismissal order and the denial of his motion to proceed anonymously to the Seventh Circuit.

Before the Seventh Circuit could decide whether the district court properly ruled on Doe’s motion, it had to determine whether it had jurisdiction over the appeal. As a general matter, “[a]n order dismissing a complaint without prejudice is not a final order that is appealable.” Id. The district court’s order had prevented Doe from proceeding without presenting his true name, but it did not decide Doe’s claims on the merits or foreclose him from pursuing those claims.

Under statute, federal appellate jurisdiction is limited to “final decisions of the district courts” and certain enumerated interlocutory orders. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291–1292. The United States Supreme Court, however, has carved out a narrow exception to the statutory limitations on appellate jurisdiction—the “collateral order doctrine.” In Cohen v. Beneficial Industrial Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546–47 (1949), the Court declared that a non-final order is immediately appealable if it meets three conditions:

  1. the order must “be conclusive on the issue presented”;
  2. the order must “resolve an important question separate from the merits of the underlying action”; and
  3. the order must “be ‘effectively unreviewable’ on an appeal from the final judgment of the underlying action.”

Doe, slip op. at 4.

While the order dismissing Doe’s complaint without prejudice was insufficient to trigger appellate jurisdiction, the denial of Doe’s motion to proceed anonymously could potentially fall within the collateral order doctrine. The Seventh Circuit approached this issue as a question of first impression. Id. at 5.

Agreeing with precedent from several other circuits, the Seventh Circuit held that denials of motions for leave to proceed anonymously are collateral orders that are immediately appealable. First, such orders are conclusive on the issue presented, because they “preclude a party’s ability to proceed anonymously.” Id. Second, “the question of anonymity is separate from the merits of the underlying action.” Id. at 6. Third, if the “parties were required to litigate the case . . . on the merits utilizing their true names, the question of whether anonymity is proper would be rendered moot,” which makes the initial anonymity determination “effectively unreviewable.” Id.

Having determined it had jurisdiction to hear Doe’s appeal, the court still had to decide whether anonymity was appropriate in this case. The court allowed that it may sometimes be necessary for a party to proceed anonymously but cautioned such occasions should be kept to a minimum:

We have repeatedly voiced our disfavor of parties proceeding anonymously, as anonymous litigation runs contrary to the rights of the public to have open judicial proceedings and to know who is using court facilities and procedures funded by public taxes. To proceed anonymously, a party must demonstrate “exceptional circumstances” that outweigh both the public policy in favor of identified parties and the prejudice to the opposing party that would result from anonymity.

Id. at 7. Here, the court stated, Doe had not shown the requisite “exceptional circumstances.” Doe’s argument that “having to proceed under his true name would defeat the purpose of his criminal expungement and any resulting embarrassment he might feel” did not outweigh “the public’s and parties’ rights to the identities of parties and the potential prejudice to the opposing parties.” Id. at 8.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment. As Judge Bauer, writing for the court, put it, “Doe has won the jurisdictional battle [but] lost the war.” Id. at 2. While this decision does not foreclose the possibility of relief, it does require Doe to proceed unmasked.

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