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Monday, November 21, 2005

Ind. Law - 7th Circuit issues decision on pleading of unauthorized interception, and on anonymous suits

In Jane Doe v. Jason Smith, an appeal from the CD Ill. decided today, Judge Easterbrook writes:

When she was 16, Jane Doe (not her real name) engaged in consensual sexual relations with Jason Smith, who was a year older. Smith had set up a hidden video camera and recorded the two in bed. After the couple stopped dating, Smith circulated the tape at their high school. At oral argument Doe’s counsel maintained that Smith distributed copies by email and that at least one of the recipients posted the data on the Internet. Doe filed this suit seeking compensation for the injury caused by this invasion of her privacy. Doe and Smith are citizens of Illinois, so the litigation is in federal court only because one of her claims is that the video recording is an unauthorized interception and its disclosure forbidden by the federal wiretapping statute, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-22. Section 2520 creates a private right of action for damages. Yet the district court dismissed the suit under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), ruling that Doe’s complaint is defective because it does not allege in so many words that the recording was an “interception” within the meaning of §2510(4).

The complaint does not maintain that Smith “intercepted” anything. Yet pleadings in federal court need not allege facts corresponding to each “element” of a statute. * * *

On remand, the district judge must revisit the question whether the plaintiff should be allowed to proceed anonymously. The judge granted her application to do so without discussing this circuit’s decisions, which disfavor anonymous litigation. * * * Plaintiff was a minor when the recording occurred but is an adult today. She has denied Smith the shelter of anonymity—yet it is Smith, and not the plaintiff, who faces disgrace if the complaint’s allegations can be substantiated. And if the complaint’s allegations are false, then anonymity provides a shield behind which defamatory charges may be launched without shame or liability.

Everyone at the high school who saw the recording already knows who “Doe” is, and most people acquainted with Smith could find out whether or not they had seen the recording. (Their dating relationship was no secret.) Now perhaps anonymity still could be justified if the tape has been circulated more widely (as counsel asserted at oral argument), and disclosure would allow strangers to identify the person in the recording and thus add to her humiliation. That question should be explored in the district court—and, if the judge decides that anonymous litigation is inappropriate, the plaintiff should be allowed to dismiss the suit in lieu of revealing her name.

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on November 21, 2005 01:27 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions