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Should Lawyers Be Able to Sue Their Firm Anonymously?

In a $50 million sex discrimination lawsuit by a BigLaw partner against her firm, the judge is allowing the plaintiff to proceed as "Jane Doe."

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson granted the partner's motion to litigate anonymously, although the defendant law firm already knows her name. Even the press has outed her as the mostly likely one of two women partners at the Washington D.C. office of Proskauer Rose.

The case presents many questions about BigLaw life, particularly as similar gender discrimination lawsuits are pending against other large firms. But this is the first of them to present the question whether litigants should be able to proceed anonymously in such circumstances.

Jane Who?

Obviously, Judge Jackson thinks anonymity is warranted. However, he granted the plaintiff's motion without a response from the defendant.

In their request, the plaintiff's lawyers said their client feared reprisal and disclosing her name would "affect plaintiff's professional reputation and ability to secure comparable employment opportunities."

In an interview with Reuters, David Sanford said his client filed anonymously because of her "special circumstances." He represents women lawyers in similar lawsuits against Chadbourne & Parke and Sedgwick who are using their real names.

"Some clients feel more vulnerable," Sanford said. "These things are difficult. Every client we have raises concerns about what the case will mean for their future."

How Long Anonymous?

Sanford knows that eventually his client's identify will be known to the general public. Whether by a leak to the media or simply by going to court -- the courtroom is not closed.

In a white paper by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the media organization acknowledges that anonymity is appropriate when litigants risk imminent physical harm or exposure to criminal liability. But it should not be permitted unless "the litigant demonstrates a compelling need and if less restrictive measures would not protect the harm to be avoided."

Anonymity is approved usually in cases involving juveniles or victims of sex crimes, and many states have court rules for cases involving reproductive rights, mental illness and other privacy concerns. But courts generally refuse anonymity for litigants who want only to prevent unwanted publicity, personal embarrassment or economic harm.

The reporter's committee advocates Constitutional scrutiny of requests for anonymity, citing the First Amendment's protection for freedom of the press and public access to the courts.

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