N.Y. Appellate Court Upholds Constitutionality of the Child Victims Act

July 14, 2023

A New York state appellate court has upheld the constitutionality of the Child Victims Act (CVA) which granted a one year extension of the state’s statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring court actions. The court found the claim-revival part of the CVA does not violate due process.

The Appellate Division, Third Department upheld a state Supreme Court’s refusal to dismiss a sexual abuse complaint against the operators of a private boarding home for at-risk youth in foster care. The complaint was brought by a man who claims he was abused several times by an employee of the boarding house in the 1980s when he was 14 years old.

Part of the CVA allows childhood survivors of sexual abuse who did not bring suit by age 23, a one-year period to file a civil action for damages, regardless of their age now. The “window” opened for six months in August 2019. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this window period was extended until August 2021. The law also changed the old statute that required claims to be brought within five years of the survivor’s eighteenth birthday, or by age 23. Survivors of child sexual abuse now have until the age of 55 to file a claim.

According to the court and legislative records, the law was enacted to “open the doors of justice to the thousands of survivors of child abuse in New York State by prospectively extending the statute of limitations.”

The plaintiff asserted various causes of action against the operators of the boarding home including that they were negligent in their failure to report the sexual abuse he suffered as required by the Social Services Law.

In their defense, the Menninger Foundation and Schenectady Community Action Program, Inc. argued that the common-law and statutory duties to report sexual abuse are not recognized causes of action under New York law and do not otherwise apply to them. They further challenged the Child Victims Act as unconstitutional both on its face and as it was applied to them in allegedly denying them due process.

The Supreme Court denied their motion, finding that New York recognizes a common-law failure to report cause of action, institutions can be found liable for a failure to report under the state’s Social Services Law, and the claim-revival part of the CVA satisfies due process.

The defendants appealed and the Appellate Division, Third Department heard their appeal, agreeing in the end with the Supreme Court’s reasons for refusing to dismiss the action against them.

Defendants argued that the application of CVA violates their due process rights because of the significant passage of time which has “certainly” resulted in the destruction of relevant records, the death of two important witnesses, and the fact that other witnesses “had their mental capacity diminished.”

But the court called this argument “conclusory and speculative” as it neglects that the Legislature “specifically considered these issues” as it relates to all parties. The court noted that the legislative history of the CVA provides that a justification for passing the CVA was that the current law required a victim to file a civil action “long before most survivors report or come to terms with their abuse, which has been estimated to be as high as 52 years old on average.”

Moreover, the court noted several factors that undermine the defendants’ purported limitations in defending this action, including their lack of a sufficient effort to locate or contact the person alleged to have committed the sexual abuse, or other witnesses who allegedly held managerial roles during the relevant time period.

Accordingly, the court affirmed that the Supreme Court properly denied defendants’ motion to dismiss.

“It is well settled that legislative enactments are entitled to a strong presumption of constitutionality,” the court noted before concluding that the “CVA was a reasonable response to remedy an injustice.”

The court relied on legislative history that raised the unique character of sex crimes where “victims of childhood sexual abuse struggle for years to come to terms with their abuse,” and explained the justifiable delays in taking action against abusers because “many young adults aren’t prepared to deal with the abuse they experienced as children” within the five-year statute of limitations that would otherwise apply.

In addition, the legislative history highlighted how certain abusers — sometimes aided by institutional enablers and facilitators — have been successful in covering up their acts against children.

“As a result, the Legislature sought to address these problems through the enactment of the CVA, determining that it “will finally allow justice for past and future survivors of child sexual abuse . . . [and] shift the significant and lasting costs of child sexual abuse to the responsible parties,” the court stated.

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