Can an employee go by John Doe in a workplace discrimination lawsuit?

Worker expresses concerns that being identified by name would threaten his family

Can an employee go by John Doe in a workplace discrimination lawsuit?

In a case arising from an employee’s discrimination allegations, a California court ruled that the risk of the employee’s family members experiencing retaliation served as a legitimate consideration to decide whether he could use a pseudonym in the proceedings.

In Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems, Inc. for employment discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. It claimed that two supervisors treated an engineer working at Cisco unfavorably because he was from the lowest caste under India’s traditional caste system.

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The Department filed a motion to allow the engineer to be called John Doe, a fictitious name, in the proceedings and in legal filings to protect his identity. The Department alleged the following:

  • The employee was concerned that publicly revealing his lower caste status would subject him and his family members living in India to further mistreatment and violence;
  • Publicizing his caste affiliation could also hinder his and his family’ future employment opportunities and could cause them to be socially ostracized;
  • In India, people considered to be of lower caste status regularly faced violence.

The trial court denied the motion, which prompted the Department to take the case to the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth District. The appellate court directed the trial court to reconsider the issue regarding the use of a fictitious name.

The trial court should apply the overriding interest test and should consider all the factors relevant to the issue of whether the employee’s privacy interest outweighed the public’s right to access court proceedings, the appellate court said. One factor would be the specific risk of retaliatory harm to the employee’s family members outside California.

Evidence of potential harm to the employee’s family members, regardless of where they lived, was a legitimate consideration in determining whether the employee was entitled to anonymity in the proceedings, the appellate court held. Specific concerns for family safety could sometimes be greater than the concern for one’s own safety. Geographical distance did not make these concerns irrelevant, the appellate court noted.

The appellate court accepted that the trial court applied the correct legal standard for determining the issue, understood the interests that it needed to balance, and considered the public’s right of access.

However, the trial court made errors when it refused to consider the employee’s concerns about the safety of his family members in India and when it declined to weigh the evidence relevant to this issue, the appellate court concluded.

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