HOUSTON -- A Texas woman is fighting for anonymity in a lawsuit alleging she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker, but a federal judge who plans to dismiss the case has ordered that her name be made public first.
While an appeals court put the order on hold, legal experts say such actions are not unprecedented as judges have wide discretion in deciding whether to reveal a plaintiff's identity. However, advocates for sexual assault survivors say such rulings can have a chilling effect on whether victims come forward.
Lawyers for the woman say they were shocked when U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes on Nov. 15 ordered her to identify herself. If she refused, Hughes’ order then called on her employer to identify her — even though the company said it had no plans to make such a request.
“This is a lawsuit that’s based on sexual assault, and therefore that’s a very personal, sensitive issue,” said David George, one of the woman’s attorneys.
George said courts and many media organizations — including The Associated Press — generally don't name people who say they have been sexually assaulted.
The woman’s federal petition, filed on Oct. 21, stems from an arbitration dispute she has with her employer, Macquarie Investment Management Advisers, a financial firm that’s a subsidiary of Australia-based investment bank Macquarie Group Limited. In court filings, the company has said it “vigorously disputes” the woman’s claims.
The woman's lawsuit doesn't give details about the sexual assault allegation but describes an attempted sexual assault by a different co-worker. She says it happened after a supervisor took workers to a strip club during a business trip to New Orleans.
She alleges Macquarie promoted the co-worker who tried to assault her and that she was punished with a lack of promotion and a threat of being fired.
The woman said her experience with Macquarie “reveals a company no more concerned with gender quality than the men depicted in the Wolf of Wall Street.” The film depicts a misogynistic and wild work culture at a brokerage firm.
Hughes' order called the petition “unprincipled and unnecessary — a low smear of Macquarie.” He said the lawsuit would be dismissed once the woman's name is revealed for the public record.
Hughes’ office said he can’t comment on a pending case.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Nov. 17 delayed Hughes’ ruling. A final ruling was expected in the coming months.
Hughes has been criticized in the past for making remarks some have seen as sexist. Last year, the 5th Circuit criticized Hughes for allegedly attributing errors made by a female prosecutor to her sex, saying, “We didn’t let girls do it in the old days.”
Hughes told the Houston Chronicle last year the remark “was about the exclusion of women historically.”
Minna Kotkin, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, said while Hughes’ order “seems a little heavy handed,” his decision had to balance the interests of the woman’s privacy with the public’s right to know.
Kotkin said the nature of this case being more about an arbitration dispute and not mainly about sexual assault might have also played a role in the judge’s decision.
Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said fear of public disclosure is one of the top barriers sexual assault survivors face in coming forward and judges should “respect the wishes of victims who prefer that their identity not be made public.”
Rose Luna, CEO of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said that “shielding survivors from invasive public scrutiny encourages them to come forward so that perpetrators might be held accountable by our legal system.”
In 2016, a Los Angeles judge ruled a woman who accused NBA star Derrick Rose of rape couldn’t remain anonymous at her civil trial. In 2017, a Connecticut judge rejected the use of pseudonyms by two college students in a civil court case over an alleged rape.
“Judges make these types of decisions and that is the power we give them,” said Michael Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
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