Can You Remain Anonymous in a Lawsuit Against Your Insurer?
If your disability claim has been denied or your disability benefits have been terminated, you may be considering filing a lawsuit against your disability insurer, and may be wondering if you have to publicly disclose your name and medical condition in order to so. You may be concerned that filing a lawsuit disclosing your condition could prompt future potential employers to decide not to hire you, in the event that you recover and seek to return to work in your profession. And if your disabling condition is a mental condition, you may (understandably) simply be concerned about the details of your condition being shared with strangers in a public forum.
While, ultimately, whether or not you can remain anonymous in a lawsuit will depend on the particular law of your jurisdiction, a recent case involving Unum suggests that if an insurance company can force you to disclose your name in court filings, it will, even if there is no real basis for doing so (other than, of course, to cause you embarrassment, in the hopes that you will drop your case.
In A.G. v. Unum Life Ins. Co., the claimant worked at a well-known, national law firm prior to her disability. She suffered from a mental health condition and was concerned that publicly disclosing this in court filings could deter law firms from hiring her in the future, should she recover from her condition and attempt to return to work. Because of this, she simply used her initials when she filed her case, and didn’t disclose her full name. In response, Unum filed a motion asking the court to compel her to disclose her full name in the publicly filed court documents.
Because the case was filed in Oregon, the Court applied the Ninth Circuit’s multi-factor test for determining whether a claimant can proceed anonymously. Prior cases applying this test had essentially determined that, in order to proceed anonymously, the claimant had to show a reasonable fear of physical harm. In light of these cases, the Court felt it had no choice but to require A.G. to disclose her name, because (among other things) the harm that she feared was economic and emotional, not physical.
What is perhaps more significant about this case is the fact that the Court also found that Unum failed to show that it would have suffered any prejudice to its case if A.G. had been allowed to stay anonymous. The Court pointed out that Unum obviously already knew A.G.’s full name from the claim forms and medical records that already existed in Unum’s file, and concluded that Unum had made “no showing that [A.G.] proceeding by initials impairs its ability to defend against the allegations.”
Unfortunately, for A.G., this ultimately didn’t matter much, because under the Ninth Circuit’s test, the party wishing to remain anonymous had the burden of proving that the risk of harm was substantial (in addition to showing that the prejudice to the other party was outweighed by this risk). So, in the end, A.G. had to face the unenviable choice of either disclosing her condition publicly or dropping her claim against Unum.
Situations like this are, unfortunately, not uncommon. Insurance companies view claims (and related litigation) as a war of attrition. They know that they have more time, money and industry knowledge than most insureds (particularly insureds who are not represented by counsel) and they also know that there is a social stigma that surrounds mental health diagnoses that can be used to their advantage. For this reason, many insurers aggressively target mental health claims or claimants who are well-known in the community (such as physicians, dentists, and lawyers) because they know that some claimants will choose to drop their claim (or settle for substantially less then they are entitled to) when faced with the prospect of having their mental or physical health publicly disclosed in court proceedings or at trial.
 A.G. v. Unum Life Ins. Co., No. 3:17-CV-01414-HZ, 2018 WL 903463 (D. Or. Feb. 14, 2018).