State lawmakers took a pass last week on extending a one-year legal window that allowed survivors of child sex abuse to sue over decades-old allegations.
The Child Victims Act, enacted last year, opened up the time frame for victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits over claims that were previously barred from court due to the statute of limitations.
The legal window is set to close in August, but New York’s court system is no longer accepting CVA lawsuits under new restrictions spurred by the deadly coronavirus pandemic. The state’s court system has postponed all “nonessential” services and the CVA lawsuits were not listed as essential under an order from Lawrence Marks, the state’s chief administrative judge.
Those orders have effectively placed a hold on new litigation under the act, but the Legislature did not move to lengthen the so-called look-back window in the state budget, which is the keystone legislative package of the year in Albany and is often used as a vehicle for large non-fiscal policy measures.
The coronavirus crisis has upended normal business at the Capitol, but legislative leaders have said they need to continue their work in some fashion. It remains unclear whether legislators will greenlight an extension to the CVA later on this session.
Cuomo last month paused the state’s statute of limitations through an executive order, tolling “any specific time limit for the commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding.”
Hoylman said some people believe the order would apply to the one-year legal window.
But he argued the executive order is unclear in regard to the CVA. Even if the order does apply, he said, it could become a legal question that defendants try to use to their advantage in court.
“It wasn’t written with the [CVA] in mind, specifically,” said Hoylman, who has argued the order effectively ended the CVA look back window.
For the Marsh Law Firm, which represents about 700 people with potential CVA claims, of which some 150 to 200 have actually sued, the pandemic is especially frustrating because a long stay on CVA cases in New York City was lifted in February, just before the crisis struck. Discovery was set to move forward quickly, but is now on hold for 90 days, said Jennifer Freeman, senior counsel at the firm.
James Marsh, a partner at the firm, said the firm believes that Cuomo’s tolling of statutes of limitations has extended the deadline to file cases through Sept. 14, from Aug. 14, and said subsequent tolling could push it out further. Still, Freeman said she believes legislators still need to act to extend the CVA window into 2021, saying other states have longer time frames to sue.
While one defendant, Rockefeller University, is engaged in settlement talks, others are holding off, Freeman said.
Even with lawyer advertising and press coverage of the CVA, many potential plaintiffs still haven’t learned about the law or decided to come forward, she added. The pandemic has been a particularly hard time for many of them, causing them to “retreat internally” instead of deciding to come forward with their stories.
In the meantime, she said, health risks are mounting for the firm’s aging CVA clients, one of whom has already died and another of whom has a stage-four cancer.