On February 21, 2024, an FHH attorney, Thomas F. Urban II, won an important victory for the firm’s client, Jane Doe, to protect her right to pursue her civil claims against her rapist without having to expose her identity.  Due to Urban’s efforts and those of his co-counsel, Walter Steimel of Steimel Counselors Law Group, LLC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a published Opinion protecting the anonymity of Doe.  Doe’s counsel established that her assailant was liable for the rape after he not only refused to provide a DNA sample that would have confirmed his culpability but also failed to mount a defense on default judgment.  Doe v. Sidar, No. 23-1177 (4th Cir. 2024).  In acknowledging the need to protect Doe’s identity, the Fourth Circuit vacated an order issued by Senior Judge Claude Hilton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued just eleven days before trial in the case was to begin, where Doe’s identity would have been revealed. 

In its Opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that it was “conclusively established that Cenk Sidar raped Jane Doe [the anonymous rape victim] in London in September 2017.”  Sidar is the CEO of a Washington, D.C.-based Artificial Intelligence company, Enquire AI.   As the Court explained,  

“[t]he legal effect of a default judgment [issued by the district court for Sidar’s failure to provide the DNA sample] is that [Sidar] is deemed to have admitted the plaintiff ’s well-pleaded allegations of fact . . . and is barred from contesting . . . the facts thus established.”  For that reason, we must assume that Sidar “admitted that he . . . raped” Doe and the truth of her allegations about how he did so. 

The Fourth Circuit also acknowledged that “[t]here is a ‘presumption’ that parties must sue and be sued in their own names,” and that “[f]or that reason, few cases warrant anonymity.”  The Court evaluated Doe’s request for anonymity based upon the Fourth Circuit’s existing test, which looks at five non-exhaustive factors when ruling on motions to proceed by pseudonym.   

In this case, the Court held that the district court’s “decision to remove Doe’s anonymity on the eve of the damages-only trial” strained the bounds of its permitted discretion in three ways:  First, the district court failed to adequately take into account the nature and strength of Doe’s legitimate interest in anonymity by seriously understating Doe’s legitimate privacy interests.  The Court held that the issues here were not merely sensitive—they involved intimate details of Doe’s sexual assault by Sidar and resulting psychological trauma.   

Second, the Fourth Circuit found that the district court’s analysis was legally flawed in its suggestion that fairness considerations invariably cut against anonymity unless the opposing party was also proceeding anonymously.  Judge Hilton had ruled that allowing Doe to remain anonymous while requiring Sidar to use his name at trial was unfair to Sidar.  Noting that Sidar had never requested anonymity, the Fourth Circuit held that Sidar having been found liable for the rape through a default judgment weighed in Doe’s favor to use a pseudonym.   

Third, the Fourth Circuit found that the district court’s decision was based on a “flawed . . . legal premise” because it did not address the fact that its entry of a default judgment tipped powerfully in Doe’s favor.  The Court held that because Sidar was already found liable and because further proceedings would be limited to determining the damages he must pay, the “risk of any unfairness to” Sidar from Doe’s continued anonymity was significantly reduced. 

For these reasons, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court exceeded the bounds of its discretion in its order requiring Doe to use her real name at trial, and thus vacated Judge Hilton’s order and remanded it with directions to reconsider in light of its opinion.   

Thomas F. Urban II is a civil litigator who was recently named a Best Lawyer TM for commercial litigation in Virginia, with a specialization in First Amendment and privacy mattersUrban was recently lead counsel for an amicus brief on behalf of several women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women and groups advocating for the protection of sexual assault victims filed in the appeal of the Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp case shortly before that case settled.  Currently, Urban and other FHH attorneys are counsel for Subspace Omega, LLC in an antitrust lawsuit seeking over $500 million from Amazon Web Services, Inc. in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.  Case No. 2:23-cv-01772-TL (W.D.Wa.).  Urban is also currently defending a favorable judgment for his clients Jeffrey Lohman and The Law Offices of Jeffrey Lohman in a RICO case against an appeal by Navient Solutions, LLC in the U.S. Fourth Circuit. 

If you have any questions about representation for future litigation, please contact Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth.