Sexual Assault Plaintiff, in Lawsuit Against Stan Polovets et al, May Not Proceed Anonymously, Judge Engoron Rules

In a recent decision, Doe v. Polovets, No. 9521022023, 2023 WL 8623613 (N.Y. Sup Ct, New York County Dec. 08, 2023), the New York State Supreme Court, NY County, denied plaintiff’s motion to proceed anonymously.

The court summarized plaintiff’s allegations as follows:

Plaintiff alleges, simply put, that defendant Stan Polovets, whom she met through a matchmaking service, took her to defendant 530 Hospitality LLC’s bar, the Skylark; drugged her drink; took her to his apartment; took her to his bed; removed her dress; and sexually assaulted her.

Judge Engoron then summarized and applied the law governing whether a plaintiff may proceed anonymously:

Generally, determining “whether to allow a plaintiff to proceed anonymously requires the court to ‘use its discretion in balancing plaintiffs privacy interest against the presumption in favor of open trials and against any potential prejudice to defendant.”’ Anonymous v Lerner, 124 AD3d 487, 487 (1st Dept 2015) (citations omitted).

In the instant case, plaintiff has alleged certain harms that she would suffer should her identity become public: (1) severe mental anguish, humiliation, invasion of her privacy, and stigmatization as an alleged victim of sexual assault; (2) potential trauma to her daughter should she be exposed to the nature of these sensitive allegations; and (3) fear of retaliation by defendant, who has significant financial resources, such that plaintiff is concerned for her safety, livelihood, and professional reputation.

Defendant argues that he would face a serious disadvantage if he were forced to mount a public defense against an anonymous accuser while plaintiff is shielded from any public scrutiny. Defendant further argues that he has already suffered reputational harm, and that allowing plaintiff to proceed anonymously would hinder his ability to conduct meaningful discovery in his defense.

“[A]nonymity should be limited to ‘compelling situations’ involving ‘highly sensitive matters’ including ‘social stigmatization,’ ‘real danger of physical harm,’ or ‘where the injury litigated against would occur as a result of the disclosure of plaintiff’s identity.”’ Doe v Kidd, 19 Misc. 3d 782, 789 (Sup Ct, NY County 2008), (finding that “an intent to merely avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend to this type of proceeding” is insufficient to justify anonymity).

Similarly to the Court in Kidd, “this Court is loath to weigh degrees of violation, and does not trivialize the wrongfulness of defendant’s alleged acts or plaintiffs alleged injuries.” Id., citing Doe v Del Rio, 241 FRD 154, 160 (SD NY 2006) (emphasizing that “there is no such thing as a ‘mere’ or ‘minor’ forcible indignity,” but holding, nonetheless, that “there are degrees of abuse, and the actions alleged here are no more intimate than those alleged in hundreds of sexual harassment cases that are prosecuted openly in the victims’ names every day in our courts”).

In the final analysis, although plaintiff has clearly alleged a traumatic assault, this Court finds that she has not met the particularly high burden of demonstrating that her case is uniquely different from the hundreds of other sexual assault cases prosecuted openly in victims’ names every day, such that sealing should be required.

Accordingly, the court denied plaintiff’s motion. However, it concluded by noting that “[g]iven the sensitivity of these allegations, combined with the irreversible consequences stemming here from, this Decision and Order is hereby stayed for 15 days to allow plaintiff an opportunity to seek a stay from the Appellate Division, First Department, if she so chooses.”

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