New Law Provides Temporary Automatic Orders Protecting Unpublished Name Change Applicants

Amy Schwartz-Wallace April 13, 2009

For 15 years, Civil Rights Law §64-a has provided victims of domestic violence, stalking, and other crimes the ability to forego mandatory publication of their intent to change their names and allows for sealing of their name change-related court records where their personal safety would be placed at risk due to release of this information.  For those persons forced to take the extreme safety measure of an identity change, this law has long-provided enormous relief.  Court orders requiring sealing of court records and publication exemptions have become progressively more commonplace where judges have determined that release of such information could place litigants in increased danger.

However, while the original law offered final relief, it did not provide for the confidentiality of this information while the name change applicant’s case was pending.  Because this time period before the name change is finalized may be especially dangerous for victims and their families, failure to protect these extremely sensitive records from disclosure seriously compromised the safety of those victims who needed confidentiality protections the most.  Further, in light of increasingly open access to internet-based court dockets in New York, such as WebCivil Supreme, if information about venue, court appearance dates, docket information, or pending motions was publically available, an applicant’s safety was inadvertently jeopardized.  Unless the name change applicant, the applicant’s attorney, or the judge was specifically aware of this potential safety breach, they would not know to request or order a temporary sealing of the records during the matter’s pendency.

Empire Justice Center has been aware of and long-troubled by this loophole.  Over the years, we have counseled countless attorneys, advocates, and victims to request a sealing order at the start of the case.  However, conscious that we could only educate but a handful of those that needed this important protection, we drafted a bill in 2007 making temporary orders automatic for applicants petitioning under Civil Rights Law §64-a during the pendency of the action. The bill was originally introduced in 2008 by Assembly Children and Families Committee Chair, William Scarborough. The bill passed the Assembly unanimously that year, but was not picked up until the very end of session by Senator Carl Kruger.  In 2009 the bill was reintroduced by both sponsors and passed both houses unanimously. Governor Paterson signed the bill into law on July 7th, 2009 (Chapter 83 of the laws of 2009).

The new law remedies this serious problem by automatically requiring a court to temporarily order the sealing and safeguarding of an applicant’s identifying information, pleadings and other court records after a case is commenced under Civil Rights Law §64-a.   In creating this automatic provision, these name change applicants will now have the benefit of the court’s crucial protection from the moment their case is filed and until final judgment.

Several New York laws already formally recognized the similar safety risks posed by disclosure of sensitive contact information in Family, Supreme Court, and other civil matters for domestic violence and child abuse survivors with pending litigation by enacting Family Court Act §154-b(2)(a), Family Court Act §580-312, Domestic Relations Law §76-h, Domestic Relations Law §254, as well as in CPLR §2103-a. This new law falls squarely within this increasing list of important confidentiality-related protections for litigants in New York.

Empire Justice Center applauds the New York State Assembly and Senate for quickly shepherding this important bill through the Legislature and to the Governor for making it state law.