New York, in enacting the Child Victims Act (the “CVA”), created a one-year “look back” window, permitting civil claims alleging the sexual abuse of a minor to be filed even if theclaims were previously time-barred. This has resulted in a deluge of litigation in New York’s state courts, including numerous lawsuits filed against religious clergy, local churches and diocese.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre (the “Diocese”) filed a motion to dismiss lawsuits in forty-four (44) cases under the CVA. The Diocese had argued that the CVA was unlawful and violated New York’s constitutional guarantee of due process. On May 13, 2020, the Hon. Steven M. Jaeger of the New York Supreme Court, Nassau County, ruled on the motion in a written decision, denying the constitutional challenge to the claim-revival portion of the CVA. Judge Jaegar relied upon case law from New York’s highest court, handed down in response to the extensive World Trade Center litigation. There, the Court of Appeals had ruled that a claim-revival statute satisfies New York’s guarantee of due process “if it was enacted as a reasonable response in order to remedy an injustice.” In the Matter of World Trade Ctr. Lower Manhattan Disaster Site Litig., 30 N.Y.3d 377, 400 (2017). The Diocese contended that this “reasonable response” was appropriate when a claimant was prevented from asserting timely claims, and that the plaintiffs in this litigation were not precluded from doing so. New York courts had previously ruled that claim-revival statutes do not pose due process challenges under the United States Constitution, but only potentially under New York’s constitution. However, no New York court had ever struck down a claim-revival statute, and so long as the standard of reasonably responding to an injustice was met, the statutes were constitutional. Thus, Judge Jaeger reasoned that the CVA stood up to constitutional scrutiny.
Under the CVA, New York’s Civil Practice Laws and Rules were amended. CPLR § 214-g provides that “every civil claim or cause of action brought against any party alleging intentional or negligent acts or omissions by a person for physical, psychological, or other injury or condition suffered as a result of” various child sexual abuse offenses would be revived during the period of the “look back” window. The Diocese moved to dismiss certain claims in the litigation, arguing that these claims were not related to the Diocese’s own intentional or negligent conduct. These claims included:
any respondeat superior claim, based on (a) acts of individual perpetrators; (b) the breach of a non-delegable duty; and (c) the breach of N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 413 and
any claim premised on conduct that is not intentional or negligent, such as recklessness or gross negligence.
Judge Jaeger also denied this portion of the motion, holding that the CVA’s language was clear and that it was intended to revive ““every” claim against a “party” so long as the claim alleges intentional or negligent conduct by a “person” causing injury as a result of specific child sexual abuse offenses.”
The court also denied other portions of the motion based on claimed deficiencies in the pleadings. Interestingly, the court agreed with the Diocese and other defendants that the punitive damages count was improper, and dismissed it – but sua sponte amended the ad damnum clauses of the Complaint to state a claim for punitive damages, finding that “the complaint as a whole alleges facts demonstrating extreme and outrageous conduct of a high degree of moral culpability.”
Child Victims Act litigation will plainly require the involvement of the appellate courts of New York to have the final say on the constitutionality of the statute. For more information on the CVA, or on the defense of sexual abuse claims generally, please contact MKCI’s Emily Weisslitz or Tom Emala.