From doe v. University. from Penn.Judge Cynthia Rufe (ED Pa.) decided today:
At all times relevant to this action, Plaintiff was a student in Penn’s Pre-Med Post-Baccalaureate program …. Plaintiff began the program in May 2020 and planned to apply to medical school upon completion in spring 2021. Plaintiff alleges that Professor Simon Tong created a discriminatory environment in her chemistry lab class by “making the course difficult for Plaintiff,” who was the only South Asian woman in the class. The plaintiff claims that Professor Tong “would not approve of the plaintiff’s [request for an] extension … because of her race, [but] an extension of the class was approved when other non-minority students joined the request.” …
Plaintiff claims that near the end of the program, her HB class teacher e-mailed her questions regarding the final laboratory report that each student was required to complete (“Lab Report”). Plaintiff alleges that HB sent this email on behalf of AR, another classmate who initially asked HB the same questions. The plaintiff responded to HB’s email the same day, answering the questions and attaching a copy of her completed lab report. HB then forwarded Plaintiff’s lab report to AR, and AR used Plaintiff’s lab report to complete her own.
On May 12, 2021, Plaintiff received a notice from the Office of Student Conduct stating that Plaintiff was accused of violating Penn’s Code of Academic Integrity by producing a laboratory report substantially similar to that of AR. On June 7, 2021, the plaintiff filed a bias incident report with Penn, alleging that only the plaintiff and AR—two minority female students—were accused of cheating, while HB—a Caucasian student—was not. Plaintiff then met with the Provost and Director of the Penn Women’s Center and informed them of Professor Tong’s alleged discriminatory conduct. Plaintiff claims that Penn did not adequately follow up with Plaintiff after this meeting.
On July 9, 2021, the plaintiff received a letter from Penn formally accusing her of violating academic integrity. After a hearing before a hearing panel, the plaintiff was found responsible for violating Penn’s Code of Academic Integrity and was sentenced to a one-and-a-half-year suspension….
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires that all parties be named in the case description.6 Rule 10(a) “illustrates ‘the principle that judicial proceedings, both civil and criminal, must be conducted in public.'” Therefore, a party will be permitted to proceed on an anonymous basis only in “exceptional cases.” Courts have long recognized that the circumstances of the case, particularly where litigants may suffer extreme hardship or danger as a result of their participation in the litigation, may justify allowing a litigant to proceed under a pseudonym. This status is granted in cases involving “abortion, birth control, transsexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS, and homosexuality.” However, the potential for inconvenience or economic harm is insufficient….
In this case, the potential harm to the plaintiff and those similarly situated is not sufficient to outweigh the public’s interest in an open proceeding. Plaintiff claims that revealing her name in this lawsuit would “permanently link her to baseless allegations,” and may hinder her chances of being accepted into medical school and/or her ability to pursue future career opportunities. In short, Plaintiff argues that anonymity is necessary to prevent possible embarrassment and economic harm, which, as the above, insufficient justification for the use of pseudonyms Moreover, at least two cases in this District have expressly held that reduced chances of admission to vocational schools do not warrant anonymity.
The prosecutor’s other arguments in favor of anonymity are also useless. For example, the plaintiff claims that her identity has remained largely confidential, that she cannot proceed with the case if this request is denied, and that similarly situated individuals would be deterred from filing similar lawsuits. Since this case is about the alleged discriminatory behavior of the university, the public is very interested in the outcome and would suffer if the case were prematurely terminated. Nonetheless, a prosecutor’s “refusal to open litigation cannot in itself outweigh the public’s interest in open trials.”
As to plaintiff’s contention regarding similarly situated plaintiffs, she offers no support for her position that such individuals would be deterred from asserting their rights. Indeed, there are numerous examples of plaintiffs filing lawsuits on their own behalf alleging that universities and school districts wrongfully accused them of racially motivated cheating. Because plaintiff’s interests in litigating anonymously do not “sufficiently outweigh” the public interest in an open proceeding, her request to proceed under a pseudonym will be denied.
Respondent does not appear to dispute that the parties not involved in this matter, AR and HB, should be permitted to remain anonymous. The Court finds that these nonlitigants have significant interests in remaining anonymous that are not outweighed by the public interest in an open trial. Plaintiff’s motion as to student non-parties will be granted, and those individuals will be referred to by their initials, “HB” and “AR”
Congratulations to James Keller, Patrick Nugent and Kruti Patel (Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP), who represent the university.