One important detail that often gets overlooked when many people think about a lawsuit is the public nature of legal proceedings. Admittedly, most cases garner little in the way of public attention. However, depending on the parties or issues involved, some are likely to pique the interest of others and consequently usher the parties into the public light. In a recent decision, Doe v. Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Georgia Court of Appeals examined issues related to anonymity raised in a personal injury lawsuit brought against a local religious institution.
The plaintiff in Doe filed a complaint on September 4, 2012, alleging that she had endured sexual abuse as a minor at the hands of an employee of the Church. In the complaint filed, the plaintiff’s actual name is never used, only a pseudonym. However, in a letter that was later sent to opposing counsel when the complaint was being served, the plaintiff was identified. In addition, 10 days following the filing of the complaint, the plaintiff also filed a notice of disclosure under court seal that identified her identity. All these acts happened before expiration of the five-year statute of limitations that applies to civil actions brought to recover damages for childhood sexual abuse. See OCGA § 9-3-33.1 (b) (requiring that action must be filed within five years of reaching the age of majority). The defendant answered the complaint and also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the initial complaint was a procedural nullity because it had not been filed under a real name. In addition, the defendant further argued that since the statute of limitations had elapsed by that point and the complaint could not be amended and relate back to the improper complaint originally filed, the case should be dismissed. The trial court concurred and granted the motion to dismiss.
The Court of Appeals, however, unanimously reversed the trial court’s decision. There is a general requirement under Georgia law that an action be prosecuted in the real name of the party of interest, see OCGA § 9-11-17 (a). In addition, the Supreme Court of Georgia has held that a lawsuit “brought in a name which is neither that of a natural person, a corporation, nor a partnership, it is a mere nullity” and, accordingly, cannot be amended by inserting the name of the proper party in interest, “there being nothing to amend.” W. & A.R. Co. v. Dalton Marble Works, 122 Ga. 774, 775 (50 SE 978) (1905). However, the Court of Appeals noted that this decision predated Georgia’s passage of the Civil Practice Act, which expressly provides that “no matter shall be dismissed on the ground that it is not prosecuted in the name of the real party of interest until a reasonable time has been allowed ….” OCGA § 9-11-17 (a). Following passage of the Act, the Supreme Court of Georgia reexamined the issue presented in Dalton Marble Works and held that when “the party plaintiff named in a complaint is not a legal entity but is reasonably recognizable as a misnomer for a legal entity which is the real party plaintiff, the misnomer may be corrected by amendment.” Block v. Voyager Life Ins. Co., 251 Ga. 162, 163 (1) (303 SE2d 742) (1983). Accordingly, the court held that the trial court erred by holding that the original complaint was a nullity that could not be amended.
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