Plaintiffs suing Ashley Madison, a popular online dating service, over a computer hacking attack that stole the personal data of millions of users will have to be publicly identified to proceed with the case, a federal judge ruled.
Forty-two plaintiffs seeking to represent a class of users of the website, which markets itself to people seeking sexual affairs outside of their marriages or committed relationships, sought to pursue litigation anonymously, as John Does, “to reduce the risk of potentially catastrophic personal and professional consequences that could befall them and their families,” according to court papers.
Hackers gained access to the company’s computer systems in July 2015 and later leaked personal information related to more than 30 million accounts.
The plaintiffs said Avid Dating Life Inc., which owns and operates the website, failed to safeguard their personal and financial information, marketed a “full delete removal” service that did not purge user account information from its database, and populated its accounts with fake female users to lure male customers.
The ruling, by Judge John A. Ross of the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri, noted that plaintiffs in cases involving accusations of rape, child sexual abuse and other sensitive matters have been allowed to use pseudonyms. Other court cases, though, have found that mere embarrassment was insufficient to outweigh the presumption of openness and public scrutiny in judicial proceedings.
“Moreover, the personal and financial information plaintiffs seek to protect has already been released on the Internet and made available to the public,” he wrote in the ruling, which was dated April 6.
Avid argued that the sexual preferences and habits of the plaintiffs “do not constitute information of the utmost intimacy” that would require withholding their names, the judge wrote.
The judge ruled that those who want to proceed as class representatives, who have a fiduciary obligation to represent the entire class of plaintiffs and who “generally receive an incentive award as compensation for work done on behalf of the class,” must disclose their identities.
They could dismiss their complaints and proceed, without publicly disclosing their names, as class members if and when a class is certified. Class members will not need to be identified by name, the judge ruled.
In similar class-action lawsuits against Avid, eight plaintiffs have sued using their names and a ninth voluntarily dismissed her lawsuit.
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