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By: Maria Alexander and Tara Sheldon
The healthcare workers challenging the constitutionality of Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate can no longer litigate their claims anonymously after the First Circuit Court of Appeals found that they failed to demonstrate a reasonable fear of harm to justify proceeding under pseudonyms.
Maine’s Center for Disease Control promulgated a regulation effective August 12, 2021 requiring all workers in licensed healthcare facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Eight Maine healthcare workers and one individual healthcare provider filed suit challenging the vaccine requirement, naming as defendants three State of Maine officials and five entities that operate healthcare facilities in Maine. In August 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine permitted Plaintiffs to proceed under pseudonyms but reserved the authority to revisit the issue as the case proceeded.
In January 2022, news organizations intervened in the case in an attempt to unseal the anonymous Plaintiffs’ identities, arguing that Plaintiffs should not be permitted to proceed under pseudonyms because the plaintiffs’ alleged fear of harm no longer outweighed the public’s interest in open legal proceedings. The District Court subsequently found that Plaintiffs had “not shown that their fear of severe harm from disclosure of their identities was objectively reasonable at th[at] time” and ordered Plaintiffs to file an amended complaint identifying by name those individual Plaintiffs who elected to proceed as named. Does 1-3 v. Mills, 39 F.4th 20, 22 (1st Cir. 2022).
Plaintiffs filed an appeal of the disclosure order and a motion for an emergency stay of the disclosure order pending resolution of the appeal. On July 7, 2022, the First Circuit denied the stay. Id. at 27. The First Circuit articulated for the first time that there is “a strong presumption against the use of pseudonyms in civil litigation.” Id. at 25. Although the First Circuit declined to formulate a test for assessing when a party may proceed under a pseudonym, it applied a multi-factor test from the Third Circuit, also relied on by other district courts in the First Circuit, that requires a party wishing to proceed under a pseudonym to show “both (1) a fear of severe harm, and (2) that the fear of severe harm is reasonable.” Id. at 25-26 (quoting Doe v. Megless, 654 F.3d 404, 408 (3d Cir. 2011)).
In denying the motion for emergency stay, the First Circuit found that there was no evidence substantiating Plaintiffs’ assertions of anticipated harm. The court noted that Plaintiffs were previously required to disclose their identities to Defendants and that no Plaintiffs withdrew from the case to avoid this disclosure. Mills, 39 F.4th at 26. Furthermore, that Plaintiffs failed to provide “current evidence of any potential harm to themselves or evidence on subsidiary issues such as whether they are employed and whether they have kept their identities confidential throughout the course of the litigation.” Id. The court also noted that Plaintiffs did “not cite Supreme Court or circuit law bearing directly on their situation” and “religious freedom cases, including those involving challenges to vaccine mandates, are often brought in the names of the plaintiffs.” Id. at 26-27.
As the First Circuit acknowledged, “[t]he people have a right to know who is using their courts.” Id. at 25. If you are facing challenges associated with pseudonymous litigation, the attorneys of FMG are here to help.
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