From Koe v. Univ. Hospitals Health Systems, Inc., decided yesterday by the Sixth Circuit (Chief Judge Jeffrey Sutton, Judge Alan Norris, and Judge Eugene Siler):

Koe was a medical resident at Case Western Reserve University/University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center from June 2019 until he was discharged in April 2021, ostensibly because he lost his privileges to practice at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Koe claimed, however, that he was terminated because he resisted having to participate in unspecified mental health counseling through the hospital’s employee assistance program (EAP)…. Koe claimed … that the hospital’s use of the EAP in this fashion was abusive, and he filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over this practice. Koe also complained to his supervisors that one of his colleagues subjected him to a hostile work environment by quizzing him about his family’s medical history….

The court upheld the district court’s ruling that Koe wasn’t entitled to proceed pseudonymously:

A complaint usually must state the names of all parties. A district court may, however, permit a party to proceed anonymously after considering, among other factors, whether the case challenges government activity, whether the party would be compelled to disclose “information of the utmost intimacy” or “an intention to violate the law,” and whether the party is a child.

“Examples of areas where courts have allowed pseudonyms include cases involving ‘abortion, birth control, transexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS, and homosexuality.’” “But the fact that a case involves a medical issue is not a sufficient reason for allowing the use of a fictitious name, even though many people are understandably secretive about their medical problems.” The key inquiry is whether the party’s interest in privacy outweighs the presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings….

In this case, Koe claimed only that his lawsuit would require him to disclose undescribed intimate information from his counseling sessions. But Koe did not specify how he would be harmed by the disclosure of his identity. And Koe could have been protected from the disclosure of private or embarrassing information that he revealed in his counseling sessions by filing the records under seal.

Koe’s case is therefore materially indistinguishable from Doe v. Carson (6th Cir. 2020). Like Koe in this case, the plaintiff in Carson claimed that she was discriminated against on the basis of a mental disability and wanted to proceed under a pseudonym to avoid the stigma associated with mental illness. “But Doe failed to identify any exceptional circumstances distinguishing her case from other cases brought by plaintiffs claiming disability discrimination who suffer from mental illness.” Moreover, Doe did not identify “any specific harm arising from disclosure of her identity.” We concluded therefore that the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing the plaintiff permission to proceed anonymously….

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