For lawyers who represent plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases, a New York state judge's ruling upholding the state's Child Victims Act last week has provided a sense of relief and bolstered their ability to bring forward cases for clients whose claims were previously barred by the statute of limitations.
The ruling — which rejected the Diocese of Rockville Centre's argument that the law violates the due process clause of New York's constitution — could support cases brought by alleged victims across the state and country, attorneys said.
Irwin Zalkin of The Zalkin Law Firm in New York, said last week's decision was critical because if the so-called window statute of the Child Victims Act were to have been found unconstitutional, a number of victims whose claims were previously time-barred would have no opportunity to seek civil justice. The statute opened a new one-year period to file claims even if the statute of limitations on them had expired.
"This is what gets them to their day in court and their opportunity to have their case heard," Zalkin said.
He said that in two Kings County cases he has pending, the Jehovah's Witnesses have made the same argument that the law violates due process. Last week's ruling will carry weight with other trial judges, he said.
The New York Child Victims Act, which went into effect in August, provided child sex abuse victims of any age a one-year window until August 2020 to file claims that would have otherwise been barred by statutes of limitations. That window was extended until January 2021 in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The new law also extends the time victims of child sexual abuse have to file suit from shortly after they entered adulthood to 55 years old.
Michael Dolce of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC said the decision will provide a sense of relief at trial, adding that any ruling upholding the act's constitutionality is encouraging for those representing survivors of sexual violence under analogous window statutes.
Dolce championed the repeal of the statute of limitations for prosecution of child sexual battery in Florida in 2010. While a certain state precedent meant a window statute would not be constitutional, Florida's legislation applies to any case that had expired as of July 1, 2010, regardless of the plaintiff's age.
He said legislation to open a revival window has been floated recently in Florida, adding that last week's Rockville Centre ruling could be helpful with regard to the constitutionality of any potential window legislation there.
He also said he was disheartened to see the church advance the same arguments in Rockville Centre that it put forward 10 years ago in Florida as he pushed for the statute of limitations repeal, including that it would be impossible for the church to defend a rash of lawsuits and that it would risk escalating insurance premiums. He said none of those arguments have come to pass in the Sunshine State, adding that the church is "just as vibrant in Florida as it was 10 years ago."
While the church has claimed to be committed to exposing abusers and helping survivors heal, it is "certainly not an act of reconciliation" to make a survivor respond to a statute of limitations defense, he said.
"I just can't wrap my head around the hypocrisy," Dolce said. "If you are going to assert that you have an above average position of ethics and morality and you are doing everything possible to help survivors, don't behave like this."
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