A three-judge panel in the Eleventh Circuit filed an opinion on Thursday ruling that the plaintiffs in a case alleging Chiquita Brands International funded Columbian parliamentary groups, who killed their family members, should not be granted anonymity, claiming that they had not shown there was a significant retaliation risk.
“A lawsuit is a public event,” said Judges Wilson, Marcus, and Bush. “Parties who ask a court to resolve a dispute must typically walk in the public eye. District courts, acting within their discretion, can grant exception from this rule. But it is rare for a district court to grant privacy protections for a party. It is even rarer for a district court to abuse its discretion when denying privacy protections for a party.”
The plaintiffs, including the individuals and EarthRights International, claimed that Chiquita and its affiliated entities paid over $1.7 million to a parliamentary group to stop unrest near its banana fields in Columbia. They claimed the financial aid contributed to deaths of their relatives.
The dispute began “over a decade ago” and Chiquita has admitted to the financing and it paid a $25 million fine after entering a guilty plea then related civil lawsuits were filed. In some civil lawsuits, the plaintiffs were given the ability to use pseudonyms and others were not. However, the district court argued that the administrative costs of anonymous litigation had a damaging effect and ruled in April 2019 that the appellants had not established a significant risk of physical harm.
This decision was appealed, but the court determined in Thursday’s order that it should stand and the plaintiffs should reveal their identities. The court acknowledged that once the names are revealed they cannot be made private again.
“Nowhere in the protective order did the district court grant the pseudonymous appellants leave to proceed anonymously. As the district court recognized in a later order, it never considered the propriety of pseudonyms until Chiquita moved to preclude the use of pseudonyms. Thus, the pseudonymous appellants bore the burden to establish, in the first instance, that their privacy rights outweigh the presumption of judicial openness,” the opinion said. The judges claimed that the district court did not make an error and there is no reason to remand the issue back to the Southern District of Florida.
Many of the plaintiffs are represented by Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley and James K. Green. Chiquita Brands International, Inc. is represented by Blank Rome LLP.