Court allows couple to sue doctor anonymously
VIRGINIA — A trial court erred in denying a couple’s request to proceed anonymously in their medical malpractice and fraud suit against a fertility doctor, a federal appeals court in Richmond ruled in early October.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) held that the risk of harm to innocent third parties, the couple’s children, outweighs the minimal risk of prejudice to the defendant, Cecil Jacobson.
The couple sued Jacobson under the pseudonyms John and Mary James after hearing media reports that the doctor was under a criminal investigation for allegedly inseminating patients with his own sperm. Mary James was artificially inseminated twice with what she thought was her husband’s sperm, but tests showed he was not the father.
Jacobson was convicted on multiple counts of fraud and perjury and was sentenced in May 1991 to more than 100 years in prison.
In early 1992, before filing suit in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, the Jameses obtained a protective order permitting them to use pseudonyms to protect the privacy of their children. After Jacobson challenged the order, the court amended it, ordering the couple to file under seal an amended complaint revealing their true names and noting that parties and witnesses at trial could testify only if identified. The plaintiffs complied but filed an appeal that stayed the proceedings.
In vacating and remanding the order, the appeals court recognized that the general presumption of open trials should yield in deference to needs for party or witness anonymity.
(James v. Jacobson)