A federal judge has granted a request by suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin to unseal the identity of a woman who anonymously filed a civil case against a man the woman claimed recklessly gave her a sexually transmitted disease.
Orie Melvin claimed the identity of the woman, now publicly known to be Jamie Pavlot, was critical to Orie Melvin’s ability to confront the woman at Orie Melvin’s political-corruption criminal trial, which opened to the jury Friday.
Pavlot was the former chief of staff for Orie Melvin’s sister, former state Senator Jane Orie. Orie was convicted last year on similar charges Orie Melvin is facing related to using their state-paid staffs to run political campaigns during work hours.
Pavlot testified at the senator’s trial in March, and again at Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing, that in the days immediately after a complaint was made to investigators regarding political work being done in the legislative office, Pavlot received a phone call with both Orie Melvin and Jane Orie on the line telling her to remove political materials from boxes she had taken from the senator’s office on November 1, 2009.
At the preliminary hearing, Orie Melvin’s lawyers were able to get one of the criminal solicitation counts against Orie Melvin dismissed based on the testimony of Pavlot.
Now, the Western District of Pennsylvania federal case of Jane Doe v. G.L. will be re-captioned as Pavlot v. Larkin after U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster granted Orie Melvin’s motion to unseal the identity of Pavlot.
In the underlying federal case filed in 2010, Pavlot had alleged that a Yale doctor, now known to be Gregory Luke Larkin, gave her a sexually transmitted disease during a sexual relationship the two had. Larkin in turn filed counterclaims that it was Pavlot who gave him the STD and who was having an affair with Larkin while Pavlot was married, according to court documents in the case. The case quickly settled and was left dormant until Orie Melvin’s motion was filed earlier this year.
Even though Orie Melvin sought the identity of Pavlot for Orie Melvin’s own personal use in her criminal trial, she still met the standing requirement by asserting the public’s common law right of access to judicial records, Lancaster said.
Lancaster noted his ruling should not be interpreted as a decision on whether the information in the federal case is admissible or relevant in Orie Melvin’s criminal trial. Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus has yet to rule on a motion by the prosecution to bar Orie Melvin from introducing evidence from the Pavlot case at the criminal trial.
In looking at the merits of Orie Melvin’s motion, Lancaster noted that since the time he allowed the case to be filed with pseudonyms, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has expressly accepted the general principle that a plaintiff’s use of a pseudonym runs afoul of the public’s right to access judicial records.
Lancaster looked at nine factors to determine whether to modify his order allowing the parties to proceed anonymously. Those factors were the extent to which the identity has been kept secret, the basis upon which disclosure is feared, the magnitude of public interest in maintaining confidentiality, whether there is an atypically weak public interest in knowing the identity, the undesirability of an adverse outcome for the pseudonymous party, whether the party seeking anonymity has illegitimate ulterior motives, the universal level of public interest in knowing litigants’ identities, whether the litigant has a public or other status making her identity all the more interesting to the public and whether the request to unseal the identity is illegitimately motivated.
Lancaster said the first and sixth factors — related to whether the identity has been kept secret and any ulterior motives by the litigant to keep her identity secret — weighed in favor of keeping Pavlot’s identity secret.
"However, although we stop short of labeling Jane Doe’s original request improper, we do recognize that at the time she filed this lawsuit she was already involved in the criminal investigation of [Orie] Melvin, and was a public employee serving as chief of staff to a Pennsylvania state senator, who is [Orie] Melvin’s sister," Lancaster said. "As such, she likely feared that any filings she might make in this case would garner more public interest than would typically be expected."
While that motive is not necessarily "illicit," Lancaster said, it falls short of the required "objectively legitimate" need to be anonymous.
The remaining seven factors weigh in favor of Orie Melvin’s motion, Lancaster said. It is not enough to conceal a litigant’s identity because the litigant fears embarrassment or economic harm, the judge said. The Third Circuit has allowed parties to proceed under pseudonyms in cases involving abortion, birth control, transexuality, mental illness, welfare rights of illegitimate children, AIDS and homosexuality, Lancaster said, noting Pavlot’s case involves none of those issues.
"It is important to recognize that this was nothing more than a civil case seeking monetary relief in tort for damages arising out of a consensual sexual relationship," Lancaster said. "The court struggles to find an overarching public interest in protecting private litigants’ rights to sue each other in federal court under such circumstances."
Weighed against that is the increased public interest in a highly publicized criminal trial against a state Supreme Court justice seeking access to judicial records involving a "key witness," Lancaster said.
Orie Melvin’s attorney, Daniel Brier of Myers, Brier & Kelly in Scranton, declined to comment. Pavlot’s attorney, Stephen S. Stallings of Burns White in Pittsburgh, did not immediately return a call for comment.
The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, which opposed Orie Melvin’s motion, declined to comment.
Larkin’s attorney, Lawrence H. Fisher of Cohen & Willwerth in Pittsburgh, did not file any responses to Orie Melvin’s motion to unseal Pavlot’s identity. Fisher said he thought the judge’s decision to identify his client was "gratuitous, unnecessary and irrelevant" to the issues at Orie Melvin’s trial. He noted Orie Melvin was not seeking Larkin’s identity be unsealed.
According to media reports, it was at Jane Orie’s retrial last year that Pavlot first testified about the alleged phone call she received from Orie Melvin and Orie directing her to remove files from Orie’s office. According to Orie Melvin’s motion in Pavlot, unsealed Friday, her recollection of that phone call after several chances to mention it years earlier is a key piece of evidence at Orie Melvin’s trial.
At Orie Melvin’s preliminary hearing, Brier asked Pavlot whether she was under stress or being treated for a medical condition that would have caused her to forget the conversation when she was first interviewed by investigators just weeks after the phone call allegedly took place. Pavlot testified, according to Orie Melvin’s motion, that she was not stressed in November 2009 and did not know of any medical conditions that she had.
Orie Melvin argued in her motion to unseal Pavlot’s identity that Pavlot said in her civil suit that she was extremely stressed in 2009 after finding out she contracted an STD. Orie Melvin argued the contradiction has a direct bearing on Pavlot’s competence and credibility.