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Vero city attorney seeks to unmask anonymous plaintiff filing lawsuits


Vero Beach City Attorney John Turner doesn’t want to wait until he goes to court to learn the identity of the mysterious plaintiff who has been filing public-records lawsuits that call out local government officials and agencies for allegedly refusing to comply with Florida’s Sunshine Law.

Turner responded to a lawsuit the plaintiff filed last month against the city and City Clerk Tammy Bursick with a court filing of his own – a motion asking Circuit Court Judge Janet Croom to dismiss the case – and he’s using the plaintiff’s anonymity against him.

In the motion filed in Indian River County, Turner argues that the lawsuit should be tossed because, under the Florida Rules of Civil Procedure and prior court rulings in the state, the plaintiff may hide behind a pseudonym only in extremely limited circumstances.

Those circumstances, according to Turner’s motion, include the “presence of some social stigma or the threat of physical harm” – neither of which appears to exist in this case.

Nor does this lawsuit involve sexual abuse or abortion, mental illness, personal safety, homosexuality, illegitimate or abandoned children in a welfare or child-victimization case, Turner wrote, noting the types of situations cited in most privacy-rights claims.

“This case has none of these concerns or fears of shame and humiliation if he received public exposure,” Turner wrote, referring to the plaintiff, who has been identified only as “John Doe, aka” in his lawsuits filed against the School District, Sheriff’s Office and City.

Turner also wrote: “The plaintiff has not alleged that he is at risk if identified.

“There is no allegation as to fears of threats, actual or perceived, or of reprisals for seeking relief under the public records act.”

Besides, Turner argued, while Florida’s public records law prevents governmental officials and agencies from demanding identification from people requesting records in most cases, the law's protection "does not extend to litigation to compel compliance."

"There is no authorization under the law for this anonymous requestor to become an anonymous plaintiff," Turner wrote.

Turner bolstered his argument by citing court rulings that embrace the openness of civil and criminal trials – with only narrow exceptions – and a “strong presumption in favor of parties proceeding in their own names.”

Thus, Turner wrote, it’s not in the public’s best interest to allow the plaintiff to remain anonymous as he pursues his case against the city and its clerk.

Even if Croom denies his motion, Turner said the plaintiff will be forced to reveal his identity as the case moves forward.

“He’ll need to come to court, show up for depositions and involve himself in discovery,” Turner said.

“You can’t try a case by text or email.”