In a lengthy order issued this morning (Jane Doe v. New Hampshire Lottery Commission), Judge Charles S. Temple of the Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua ruled that the winner of a $560 million Powerball lottery jackpot may remain anonymous while collecting her winnings. The winning ticket had been purchased in Merrimack, New Hampshire on January 6, 2018.
At issue in the case were two conflicting principles: the right of the lottery winner (referred to as “Jane Doe”) to maintain her privacy, and the right of the public to know her identity under the state’s Right-to-Know laws. Significantly, it is well-established in New Hampshire that the representative of a legal trust (typically an attorney) is permitted to claim lottery winnings, allowing lottery winners to remain anonymous in many cases. Jane Doe’s problem was that she had already filled in her personal information on the back of the ticket prior to consulting with an attorney. The state Lottery Commission informed Jane Doe’s attorneys that using white-out to replace her name with her trust’s name would invalidate the ticket. Therefore, Ms. Doe’s attorneys petitioned the Superior Court to allow her to collect her winnings anonymously.
The Court conducted a three-step analysis. First, the Court considered whether Ms. Doe enjoyed a “privacy interest” that would be violated if her information was disclosed. Second, the Court analyzed whether the public has an interest in disclosure of her personal information. Lastly, the Court weighed the privacy concerns versus the public interest in disclosure.
The Court first concluded that Ms. Doe’s privacy would be substantially invaded if her name was disclosed. It cited several news articles and affidavits detailing the harassment horror stories of past winners. The Court noted that even Ms. Doe’s law firm had been inundated with solicitations. The Court determined that Ms. Doe would be in danger of harassment and possibly even violence if her name were revealed. The Court did find that Ms. Doe’s hometown could be disclosed without violating her privacy.
Moving on to the second stage of the analysis, Judge Temple concluded that the public does have an interest in learning the identity of lottery winners. The Court reasoned that lottery funds are disbursed by the government, and that the public has an interest in knowing how government funds are distributed. For example, a lack of transparency regarding lottery funds could lead to the conclusion that the state doesn’t pay out lottery winnings at all.
Having found a privacy interest in non-disclosure, as well as a public interest in disclosure, the Court weighed the two competing interests in the final step of its analysis.
The Court concluded that Jane Doe’s privacy rights outweighed any public interest in disclosure. Central to the Court’s reasoning was the fact that (as noted above), lottery winners in New Hampshire are allowed to claim a prize through a trust. If Jane Doe had merely consulted with her attorney before filling in the information on the back of the ticket, there would be no questioning her ability to remain anonymous. That reality “severely undercut” the Lottery Commission’s argument that disclosure of Ms. Doe’s identity was necessary to enable public scrutiny.
Judge Temple also noted that there were many safeguards already in place to ensure the Powerball contest was legitimate. There have been no allegations of corruption in the state Lottery Commission. The Multi-State Lottery Association, which effectively runs the Powerball lottery throughout the country, is independently audited. The tickets themselves have numerous security features to ensure they are authentic.
Therefore, the Court concluded that Jane Doe had a “strong privacy interest,” that substantially outweighed the “somewhat negligible public interest” in disclosure. Interestingly, as evidence of the potentially “alarming amount of harassment” Ms. Doe could receive, the Court noted the “significant media attention” received by the litigation itself.
This is a mildly surprising result, given the law’s strong preference for disclosure of government records. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has stated that parties seeking to prevent disclosure must meet a “heavy burden” to defeat disclosure. However (as noted by Judge Temple) by allowing lottery winners to remain anonymous through trusts, the Lottery Commission seriously undermined its own argument that the public interest required disclosure of Jane Doe’s personal information. The Court also enjoyed support for its position from a South Carolina case in which that state’s lottery commission was similarly prohibited from releasing a winner’s identity.
Pursuant to an agreement between the parties, Ms. Doe was permitted to collect her lottery winnings anonymously several days ago. The only remaining issue was whether her identity could eventually be disclosed pursuant to Right-to-Know requests. The Court stated that it could not, due to Ms. Doe’s privacy interests.
The lottery ticket will be processed and maintained by the Lottery Commission with Ms. Doe’s actual name on it; it simply can’t be disclosed to the public without being redacted. From a practical perspective, however, the fact that Ms. Doe’s name will remain on the ticket in the Commission’s files raises the possibility that her identity could be leaked, accidentally or otherwise. Presumably, Ms. Doe’s attorneys will seek assurances from the state that her personal information will be safeguarded internally.
This decision is subject to appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court (New Hampshire’s only state appellate court). It is not known at this time whether the Lottery Commission (represented by the state attorney general’s office) will pursue an appeal. An appeal would need to be filed with the Supreme Court within 30 days of this decision, unless a motion for reconsideration is first filed with the Superior Court.
Author: Israel Piedra
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