July 29, 2019
  • Cases using pseudonyms double in 2018 from previous year
  • Proceeding anonymously is rare in employment disputes

The workers wanted to hold their former employers accountable for alleged harassment and discrimination. What they feared was using their names to do so.

Since the start of 2019, courts have confronted: a woman who didn’t want the details of an alleged sexual assault made public; a man who said he was harassed for being gay but didn’t want his sexuality revealed to his family; and a group of women who feared “career suicide” as they challenged what they describe as a fraternity culture in their workplace.

They wanted to sue under pseudonyms. But in each case, workers wrestled with the difficult choice of whether to go forward publicly, risking retaliation and embarrassment. Attorneys who represent workers say forcing employees to proceed under those circumstances can create a chilling effect, provide leverage to companies, and may mean that alleged victims fear coming forward.

These cases are among the growing number of discrimination lawsuits filed in recent years that forced courts to balance potential harm to plaintiffs with the company and public’s right to an open judicial system.

A Bloomberg Law analysis showed that discrimination and harassment lawsuits filed anonymously doubled in the wake of the ongoing #MeToo movement. There were 52 of those suits filed in 2018, up from 24 the previous year and just 17 in 2016. They’re on pace to reach 2018 levels this year as well, with 24 filed through the first half of 2019—about as many as in all of 2015 through 2016.

The use of pseudonyms in employment law cases, while rare, is increasingly relevant in an era marked by growing awareness of issues surrounding bias and harassment in the workplace. Recent cases in which workers have sought anonymity include lawsuits against Jones Day, Morrison & Foerster, JetBlue Airways Corp., the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Morgan Stanley.

“It’s an important dimension of the #MeToo movement. The same things that have prevented people from coming forward to raise allegations makes them afraid to publicly attach their name” to a lawsuit, said Kalpana Kotagal, a partner with Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, who represents workers in class actions.

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