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Doe v. Cloninger

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

July 17, 2015

JANE DOE Plaintiff,
ALAN CLONINGER, in his individual and official capacity as Sheriff of Gaston County, Defendant.


GRAHAM C. MULLEN, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion to Proceed Anonymously (Doc. No. 2), Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 9), and Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 14).


Plaintiff filed this Complaint[1] on January 20, 2015 asserting violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The Complaint alleges that, on January 21, 2012, Plaintiff stopped at a McDonald's in Gastonia, North Carolina. When she attempted to pay for food using a one hundred dollar bill, an employee told her that it was "not good." When she requested the bill back, the manager took her identifying information and asked her to wait. Soon thereafter, a Gastonia police officer arrived, examined the bill, determined that it was fake, and arrested Plaintiff. Plaintiff was taken to the Gaston County Jail.

The Complaint asserts that Plaintiff is a twenty-six-year-old citizen of Saudi Arabia who was in the United States on a student visa, and that English is not her first language. She is also an observant Muslim who wears a hijab, and believes that removing the hijab in public or in the presence of unrelated males is against her religion. The Complaint alleges that, after she was booked at the Gaston County Jail, Plaintiff was questioned about how long she had been in the country and why she was in North Carolina. She was then asked to remove her jacket, shoes, and her hijab. Plaintiff objected to removing the hijab and asked if it could be removed in a private room away from men. Her request was denied, and she was required to remove the hijab in the presence of male officers. She was also photographed without her hijab, and the picture was placed on the Sherriff's Department website and subsequently reposted on a number of various media websites.

At some point after being photographed, Plaintiff's handcuffs were removed and she was told that she was free to go. The arresting officer subsequently appeared, acknowledged that the bill was not fake, and repeatedly apologized to the Plaintiff. Plaintiff was given a court date of January 23, 2012, but told that she did not need to appear. Plaintiff, who lived in Knoxville, Tennessee at the time, drove to the hearing and appeared anyway. At some point during the day, a prosecutor told her that the case against her was being dismissed, and the two felony charges for possessing and attempting to pass counterfeit currency would be dropped. Since then, Plaintiff alleges that she has experienced considerable anguish and physical and emotional distress. She also alleges that she has had difficulty re-entering the country due to her arrest record.


A. Motion to Proceed Anonymously and for Protective Order

Contemporaneous with her Complaint, Plaintiff filed a motion asking that she be allowed to proceed in this case anonymously and for a protective order. (Doc. No. 2). Generally, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires that the "title of the complaint must name all the parties." However, the Fourth Circuit has recognized that "under appropriate circumstances, anonymity may, as a matter of discretion, be permitted." James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993). "This simply recognizes that privacy or confidentiality concerns are sometimes sufficiently critical that parties or witnesses should be allowed this rare dispensation." Id. When presented with such a request, courts have "a judicial duty to inquire into the circumstances of particular cases, " and must weigh this determination against "the general presumption of openness of judicial proceedings." Id. A number of factors are typically considered when making such a determination:

whether the justification asserted by the requesting party is merely to avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend any litigation or is to preserve privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature; whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the requesting party or even more critically, to innocent non-parties; the ages of the persons whose privacy interests are sought to be protected; whether the action is against a government or private party; and, relatedly, the risk of unfairness to the opposing party from allowing an action against it to proceed anonymously.

Id. The Court has reviewed the Complaint and Plaintiff's motion in light of these factors and finds that this case does not merit this "rare dispensation."

The reasons why Plaintiff seeks to proceed anonymously in this case are somewhat difficult to ascertain from the motion. Her stated reasons for seeking to maintain anonymity are "because of the unique risks that she faces as a result of the proposed online disclosure of her religious beliefs, " ( see Doc. No. 3 at 4), and that "publicizing her name in conjunction with potential worldwide publication of the tenants [sic] of her religion would provide a greater opportunity for individuals who wish to harm her to do so, " ( see id. ). The Court struggles, however, to imagine how the disclosure of one's religious beliefs themselves constitutes a matter that is sensitive and highly personal in nature. Neither the motion nor Plaintiff's affidavit demonstrate that Plaintiff is embarrassed about her religion or its tenets, or that she would experience harm if the public were aware of her religious beliefs.

Instead, the Court takes Plaintiff's assertion to mean that she is embarrassed about this incident and wishes not to have her name further associated with it. This is reflected in the affidavit:

15. If I am required to identify myself as the person in these websites, I fear that I will be doing to myself what the Defendant caused to happen to me in 2012 and 2013, namely, the ...

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