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A. Michael v. Charter Communications, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 30, 2017

A. MICHAEL, Plaintiff,
v.
CHARTER COMMUNICATIONS, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN M. BODENHAUSEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is a putative class action suit by a former customer against a telecommunications company related to its privacy practices for customer information. At issue here are a number of interrelated motions pertaining to whether Plaintiff must disclose his full name in a putative consumer class action, as well as the treatment of other “personally identifiable information” about Plaintiff and other potential class members. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to Title 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). (ECF No. 7)

         Defendant Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) began by filing its Motion to Dismiss and for More Definite Statement (ECF No. 8), alleging that the Complaint is deficient because Plaintiff is identified only as “A. Michael” therein. Plaintiff filed a Response (ECF No. 13) asserting that Plaintiff should be allowed to proceed under the relative anonymity of his first initial. In its reply brief (ECF No. 16), Defendant noted that the Response was filed seven days late and asked that it be struck on that basis. Plaintiff in turn filed a Motion for Leave to File Out of Time (ECF No. 18) regarding the Response, which Defendant has opposed. (ECF No. 20)

         Parallel with the line of filings just described, Plaintiff also filed a Motion for Protective Order and for Leave to Proceed Anonymously, seeking leave to proceed anonymously “until a class is certified” and for an order that any filings with “personally identifiable information” about Plaintiff or other Charter subscribers be redacted or placed under seal. (ECF No. 14) Defendant has opposed this motion as well. (ECF No. 17)

         To cut to the ultimate conclusion, the Court finds that there is no basis for it to allow Plaintiff to proceed anonymously or on any terms other than those generally required of any party filing suit in federal court. Further, the Court finds that a broad protective order such as that proposed by Plaintiff is not warranted at this stage of litigation, but will require redaction of Plaintiff's address from any pleading filed until the Rule 16 Scheduling Conference.

         I. Plaintiff's Late-Filed Response

         As an initial matter, the Court grants Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to File Out of Time. (ECF No. 18) Defendant filed its Motion to Dismiss on June 2, 2017. (ECF No. 8) Under Local Rule 7-4.01, a party opposing such a motion must file its response within seven days of being served with the motion, unless otherwise provided by the rules or by the court. Therefore, in the absence of a request for more time, Plaintiff's opposition was due on June 9, 2017. Plaintiff filed his opposition on June 16, 2017, seven days out of time. (ECF No. 13)

         Time computations and extensions of time are governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 6, which allows for a certain amount of discretion in allowing a party to file a response after the deadline has passed, as long as the failure to act is the result of “excusable neglect.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(b)(1)(B).

         The Supreme Court has interpreted “excusable neglect” as an “elastic concept” not limited to circumstances beyond the control of the party. Pioneer Inv. Servs. Co. v. Brunswick Assoc. Ltd. P'ship, 507 U.S. 380, 392 (1993). Whether a party's failure to meet a deadline is excusable is an equitable determination, “taking account of all the relevant circumstances surrounding the party's omission.” Id. at 395. Four factors have been held to be of particular importance in weighing the equities: (1) the possibility of prejudice to the opposing parties; (2) the length of the delay and the possible impact of that delay on judicial proceedings; (3) the reasons for delay, including whether the delay was within its reasonable control; and (4) whether the late-filing party acted in good faith. Sugarbaker v. SSM Health Care, 187 F.3d 853, 856 (8th Cir. 1999)

         In his retroactive Motion for Leave, Plaintiff states that the late filing was the result of a clerical error, specifically that counsel accidentally recorded the response deadline “one line below where it should have been” on his calendar. (ECF No. 18 at 1)

         On balance, the Court finds that the equities of the situation weigh in favor of allowing the Response to stand despite its late filing. The “reason for delay” weighs against Plaintiff, as it was a basic clerical error completely within his control. However, there is no indication that the error was committed in anything other than good faith. The length of the delay was relatively short, and at this early stage of litigation it does not delay the overall timing of the proceeding.[1] Nor has the delay itself appreciably prejudiced Charter. Finally, as noted by the Eighth Circuit, there is a “judicial preference for adjudication on the merits” rather than on technicalities. Oberstar v. F.D.I.C., 987 F.2d 494, 504 (8th Cir. 1993). Therefore, the Court will grant the Motion for Leave and take Plaintiff's Response into consideration.

         II. Defendant's Motion to Dismiss and For More Definite Statement

         Defendant's Motion to Dismiss presents two separate but related issues relating to identification of Plaintiff. First, it alleges that the Complaint is deficient because Plaintiff has not provided his full name in the pleading. (ECF No. 8 at ¶ 10) Second, it alleges that the Complaint lacks other details about Plaintiff (such as address and account number) sufficient to allow Charter to file a meaningful responsive pleading. (Id. at ¶¶ 9, 11)

         A. Plaintiff's Full Name

         In response to the name issue, Plaintiff asserts that he should be allowed to proceed anonymously. As to the additional information, Plaintiff asserts that he has already privately provided Defendant “with his full name, previous addresses to the best of his recollection, and time period during which he was a subscriber of Defendant's services.” (ECF No. 13 at 3) Plaintiff then filed a motion for a protective order, requesting that he be allowed to proceed anonymously and with the somewhat nebulous request that all filings with “personally identifiable information” be redacted of such information or filed under seal until the Rule 16 Scheduling Conference takes place.

         As an initial matter, Defendant is correct that the Complaint as drafted does not meet the standards for form of a pleading. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(a) requires that “[t]he title of the complaint must name all the parties[.]” This has been interpreted as a general requirement that parties to a lawsuit identify themselves in full in their respective pleadings. As the Eleventh Circuit put it, “[t]his rule serves more than administrative convenience. It protects the public's legitimate interest in knowing all of the facts involved, including the identities of the parties.” Doe v. Frank, 951 F.2d 320, 322 (11th Cir.1992)

         There are exceptions to this general rule, where a court may allow a party to proceed under something other than their full name. “The decision whether to permit a plaintiff to proceed anonymously is within a court's discretion.” W.G.A. v. Priority Pharmacy, Inc., 184 F.R.D. 616, 617 (E.D. Mo. 1999). However, courts have generally held that there is a strong presumption against allowing parties to do so. Id. Again, this presumption can be traced back to the public's “First Amendment interest in public ...


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