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John Doe sits in when defendant is unknown, protected

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Who are John Doe and Jane Doe and why are they involved in so many different lawsuits? 

Well, they're not real people — not yet, anyway. Think of them as placeholders in some cases. 

Allison Farrell, a Steptoe & Johnson attorney in Bridgeport, explained John Doe defendants generally are used when someone has an action he or she wants to file but is not quite sure of the identities of all the defendants. 

In these cases, the person may know someone else is involved but doesn't know the names. 

"Generally, if you're running up against a schedule, at least in West Virginia, you can file that complaint and name your John Doe defendant," Farrell said. "That gives you extra time to go and determine the identity of that defendant so you can properly name them." 

A quick search through lawsuits filed will turn up several instances like this. However, sometimes these fictional names are not just used as placeholders. 

They can be used to protect the identities of those involved, such as in the case of Roe v. Wade or in juvenile cases, when initials are primarily used. 

"Jane Doe or John Doe can be permissible where there are challenges to a criminal statute or if you're challenging a constitutionality of something in advance of a prosecution," said Dinsmore & Shohl attorney Henry Jernigan. "There are limitations, obviously, on when you can do that." 

Other cases when anonymous defendants can be helpful are in oil and gas and real property work. 

"There are a whole bunch of cases that involve anonymous defendants, rather than John Doe defendants," Farrell explained. 

In practice, Farrell said, anonymous defendants are no different than John Doe defendants. However, the difference is in the way the case is seen. 

 Farrell explained the way these cases are styled is that it would be the oil and gas company versus the last record title holder to the property. 

"So, it could be Oil and Gas Company v. Billy Bob and all of his unknown and missing heirs and successors," she said. "The problem this type of litigation is designed to fix is where you have a piece of property, someone owns it, dies, and they don't have a will so they pass it down to the family but there is nothing on the record." 

In some cases, the last owner could have lived in the 1800s. 

"Obviously, that person is not able to find an oil and gas lease, so teams of people in the state are trying to find missing heirs, building family trees to track down the owners," Farrell said. "Sometimes, they can't be found. They've run away. So, there's a special kind of court proceeding you can go through to obtain a lease on behalf of missing or unknown people," she said. 

Farrell said in her experience with states in the Appalachian basin, each area has a problem with missing owners but handles it a little differently. 

"Pennsylvania provides for summary proceedings where the bank acts as a trust. You deposit money on behalf of the missing person. It goes on behalf of the missing person to the bank when a missing person approves the lease. 

You file your case, the court will say, ‘Yes, I agree this person is missing.' They will set up a trust for benefits at a bank and the operator has the obligation to deposit funds into the account forever unless the missing person comes forward." 

In West Virginia, Farrell said, the court appoints a special commissioner on behalf of the missing person. If the person is still gone after seven years, the property is conveyed to the surface owner. 

"It's a way to claim the title in West Virginia," Farrell said. "Then, you no longer have a problem with the missing person. The minerals are reunited with the surface." 

Jernigan said the important thing to remember is synonyms are used for people in rare circumstances and the defendant must be named if the person filing the action knows the name. 

"I've never really thought it was necessary, but you can put that placeholder there," he said. "It can be necessary for a statute of limitations. I don't do it very often, though."