Fourth Circuit Holds That District Court Had Subject-Matter Jurisdiction Over Complaint with Pseudonymous Plaintiff

In B.R. v. F.C.S.B., No. 21-1005 (4th Cir. Nov. 2, 2021), the Fourth Circuit accepts an interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) and holds that a federal court has subject-matter jurisdiction over a claim despite not knowing the plaintiff’s true name.

A plaintiff – named “Kate” in the opinion – “commenced this action by filing a complaint in which she referred to herself by the pseudonym Jane Doe. In her complaint, she alleged in detail multiple acts of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, including rape, that were directed against her over the course of several months when she was a student at a middle school in Fairfax County, Virginia, and the school’s inaction to end the offensive conduct when it was ongoing, all of which caused her serious injury. She claimed that the defendants, whom she named, violated her rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and other laws. And she explained that she was using a pseudonym to protect her privacy and health.”

Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing (among other things) that a federal court has no power to hear a case when the plaintiff does not disclose their identity to the court, even under seal. “The court recognized Kate’s violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) in failing to include her name in the original complaint, but it refused, as a matter of justice, to dismiss the action based on such a ‘nuanced [procedural] circumstance,’ rather than resolving the case ‘based on . . . merit.’ . . . . In short, the court allowed Kate to proceed with her Title IX claim and related state law claims and to do so using her initials, rather than her name.”

The district court granted § 1292(b) certification of the order and specified the issue “whether a plaintiff’s failure to obtain leave of court to file a complaint pseudonymously is a jurisdictional defect such that a later order granting leave to proceed pseudonymously does not relate back to the original filing for purposes of the statute of limitations.”

The Fourth Circuit affirms. “At the heart of the defendants’ argument is the contention that because Kate filed her complaint using a pseudonym, the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the action. According to the defendants, a ‘district court’s jurisdiction does not attach unless and until a plaintiff tells the court who she is.’ This is so, they maintain, because ‘the scope of Article III is informed by the common law,’ and ‘[a]nonymous complaints would not have been understood as valid ‘Cases’ or ‘Controversies’ to the ‘expert feel of lawyers’ in the common law ‘courts at Westminster.’”

The panel first confirms that Congress granted lower courts subject-matter jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The question then reduced to whether such jurisdiction was lawful under the Constitution, i.e., whether a pseudonymously-filed action is a “case” or “controversy” for Article III purposes.

“[W]e have no difficulty concluding that when Kate filed her complaint in July 2019, her civil action qualified as a ‘Case’ or ‘Controversy’ within the meaning of Article III. While she did not include her real name in the complaint as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) — explaining that she used a pseudonym for privacy and health reasons — everything else about what she alleged was real . . . . In her complaint, Kate described actual historical incidents of rape and sexual abuse, not hypothetical ones, giving times and places for them. She described particular injuries that she suffered from the alleged misconduct, for which she seeks damages that a court can award. And she alleged all the elements of a Title IX claim, over which federal courts have jurisdiction.” 

“The defendants’ principal and perhaps only argument to counter this conclusion focuses on historical pleading practice. The defendants emphasize the Supreme Court’s recognition that ‘a century’s worth of precedent and practice in American courts’ can inform whether a particular rule is jurisdictional.” Defendants argued that “pseudonymous lawsuits . . . were unknown at common law” and thus should not be deemed Article III cases. But “the Supreme Court has never suggested that a case or controversy does not exist if a plaintiff sues under a pseudonym without first revealing her true name to the court.” Indeed, in one of the most famous cases of all, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court noted without challenging justiciability “that the plaintiff had filed her complaint under a pseudonym in March 1970 and had ‘filed an alias affidavit with the District Court’ in May of that year.”

The court notes in closing that “we do not intend to trivialize the importance of complying with Rule 10(a). That Rule plainly states that ‘[t]he title of the complaint must name all the parties.’ Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(a) . . . . [But] we reject the suggestion that a plaintiff’s failure to disclose her name to the court at the outset of the litigation denies the court the power to resolve the dispute.”

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