The Appellate Division has reversed a decision by a trial judge that denied a request by a transgender man seeking to conform his identification documents with his gender identity to seal records of his name change in order to protect him from discrimination and violence. Lowenstein’s Lynda A. Bennett and Michael J. Scales represented several amici on behalf of the plaintiff.

The core issue on appeal was the appropriate standard to seal the record for the name change application. Lowenstein’s amicus brief presented evidence of a heightened risk of injury and harm faced by the transgender community. The Appellate Division agreed that disclosure of the applicant’s identity would likely cause a clearly defined and serious injury, and that his interest in privacy substantially outweighed the presumption that all court and administrative records are open for public inspection. 

In its Opinion, the Court noted that “it is difficult to imagine a more intimate, personal and private matter than whether a person’s gender identity conforms with the sex they were assigned at birth, typically based upon the existence and appearance of their reproductive organs, and their chromosomal makeup.”  The decision further stated: “(1) The litigation entails revelation of highly private and personal information; (2) the very relief sought, a name change that affirms appellant’s gender identity, would be defeated by opening the record to the public, which would reveal a given name that conflicts with the appellant’s gender identity.  Moreover this case is a ‘purely private matter’ with no meaningful public interest…”

The Appellate Division disagreed with the trial court’s denial of the plaintiff’s reconsideration motion on the heels of the Supreme Court’s elimination of the publication requirement for name change applications. It also rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the applicant had no right to ask the court to keep a secret he does not plan to keep, recognizing that just because the plaintiff intended to share the fact that he is transgender with friends and family does not “mean appellant should be compelled to disclose this information to the world, including those who may do harm to him as a result, in order to obtain a change of name that affirms his gender identity.  The purpose of sealing the record was to protect appellant’s right to share his transgender identity only with those he trusts, thus avoiding the psychological and possibly physical harm he would suffer by making the information public.”

Lowenstein represented as amici the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, National Center for Transgender Equality, Masjid al-Rabia, and Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity.

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