Friday, October 3, 2014

Seeking Leave to Prosecute or Defend a Civil Lawsuit Under a Fictitious Name

Last month, the Illinois Appellate Court issued one of the few opinions interpreting section 2-401(e) of the Code of Civil Procedure. Section 2-401(e) allows a litigant to appear under a fictitious name upon a showing of “good cause.” In  Doe v Northwestern Memorial Hospital, 2014 IL App (1st) 140212, a group of plaintiffs filed complaints against Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation alleging that the defendants negligently allowed a cryogenic tank to fail causing damage to semen and testicular tissue stored in the tank. Most plaintiffs suffered from cancers which were likely to significantly interfere with their ability to engage in ordinary reproductive activities.

In affirming the trial court’s order allowing the use of pseudonyms, the appellate court noted the dearth of authority addressing what constitutes “good cause” to avoid the general rule that the public has the right to know who is utilizing tax supported courts. Doe at ¶ 35. The court recognized that the use of pseudonyms is disfavored and reserved for “exceptional circumstances” involving “highly personal” matters such as abortion, adoption, sexual orientation, and religion. Doe at ¶ 35, 39. Applying a balancing test, the court found that plaintiffs’ reproductive health and medical treatments were “extremely private and sensitive topics” and that individual privacy concerns outweighed the public’s interest in open court proceedings. Doe at ¶39.

Like most courts that break new ground, the justices tried to limit the impact of their decision by describing the circumstances as “exceptional, the result of a confluence of factors that might never recur.” Doe at ¶ 43. But the ramifications of the opinion should not be underestimated. Reproductive health and potentially a litigant’s privacy interest in treatment for any serious illness might justify invoking section 2-401(e). Indeed, it appears that “good cause” might be established whenever any type of privacy interest outweighs the public’s interest in open judicial proceedings. Doe v. Northwestern Memorial Hospital is necessary reading before seeking leave for a client to appear under a fictitious name.

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