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An unnamed manufacturer challenging an online database of safety complaints has asked the court to allow it to proceed anonymously, arguing that the public filing of legal documents implicates the very interests the company seeks to protect by bringing the litigation.
“Company Doe” filed a motion in the U.S. district court in Maryland earlier this week in an attempt to prevent the Consumer Product Safety Commission from posting a complaint about a product the company makes to SaferProducts.gov. Neither the filing nor any other information related to the claim is accessible through PACER, the federal courts’ electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts nationwide.
The relatively new product safety database allows people to file reports, for public view, of injuries or deaths from everyday products.
Company Doe alleges that the complaint against it, which involves an injury to a child and was filed by an unnamed government agency rather than the child's family, is baseless, and publishing it online could irreparably harm the company’s reputation.
Scott Wolfson, communications director for the Safety Commission, which oversees the database, said manufacturers named in complaints are informed of their filing and given an opportunity to file a response, which would be posted in conjunction with the complaint. Wolfson said he could not comment on whether the anonymous company took advantage of this procedure.
The agency plans to fight Company Doe’s attempt to shield this information from public view by filing a motion to have the documents unsealed, Wolfson said in a Washington Post report.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never decided whether the public has a First Amendment right of access to civil proceedings. However, a number of courts have ruled that the First Amendment creates a right of access to civil court documents, particularly those placed in evidence or filed with the court. Correspondingly, the use of pseudonymous civil filings is not often allowed because it represents a fundamental threat to access by denying the public the right to know who is using the public courts to resolve a dispute.