Friday, March 30, 2012
High Court Clarifies Time Limit for Childhood Molestation Suits
Legislation Reviving Old Claims Slammed Door Shut After 2003, Justices Rule
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Legislation creating a one-year period in which child abuse victims could sue defendants who negligently failed to prevent the abuse from occurring, without regard to the prior statute of limitations, did not extend the time in which such persons could sue once the yearlong period expired, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The 5-2 decision held that certain suits filed after 2003—those against defendants alleged to have failed to take reasonable steps after being placed on notice of molestation accusations against employees or others within their control—are barred if the limitations period expired on those claims before they were filed.
The ruling addresses an issue that has been raised in a number of cases and split the Court of Appeal—the interpretation of the 2002 amendments to Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 340.1(c).
At one time, no suit based on childhood molestation could be filed more than one year after the plaintiff reached the age of majority. But those limits have been extended with regard to various classes of defendants.
Under 1998 legislation, claims based on childhood sexual abuse that were filed after Jan. 1, 1999, or were pending on that date, were subject to the following time limits:
•An alleged molester could not be sued more than three years after the plaintiff discovered that he or she had been injured as a result of the molestation, or after the plaintiff’s 26th birthday, whichever was later;
•Any other party whose acts or omissions were an alleged legal cause of the plaintiff’s injuries could not be sued more than three years after discovery, or after the plaintiff’s 26th birthday, whichever was earlier.
In 2002, however, lawmakers created Sec. 340.1(b)(2). The provision states that if the non-molester defendant “knew or had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice, of any unlawful sexual conduct by an employee, volunteer, representative, or agent, and failed to take reasonable steps, and to implement reasonable safeguards, to avoid acts of unlawful sexual conduct in the future by that person,” the deadline is the same as against a molester defendant.
In addition, with respect to the latter group of defendants, there was no time limitation at all if the action was filed during the year 2003.
Yesterday’s ruling came in an appeal by six brothers who had sued the Roman Catholic diocese of Oakland. The plaintiffs appealed after Alameda Superior Court Judge Kenneth M. Burr sustained a demurrer, finding the claims time-barred.
The suit was filed in 2007. The plaintiffs, then between the ages of 43 and 49, maintained that they were molested by Father Donald Broderson during his service as associate pastor of their Hayward parish in 1972 and 1973.
Terry, Ronald, Michael, Jerry, Gordon and Tony Quarry also alleged that they had not discovered until 2006 that they had suffered psychological injury as a result of being molested. Broderson who is now deceased, and who is alleged to have molested 11 children while serving at several churches in the diocese, according to news accounts, admitted having molested the brothers in a 2005 deposition.
Burr ruled that their claims were barred by the pre-1998 statute of limitations, and that no exception applied because they missed the one-year revival window.
Court of Appeal
The First District Court of Appeal reversed, reasoning that under the 2002 amendment, and taking the allegations as true for purposes of demurrer, the limitations period applicable to the plaintiffs’ claims did not begin to run until 2006.
The court reasoned that the one-year revival period only applied to claims that were otherwise barred because the plaintiffs had waited more than three years to sue after learning of the connection between their adult psychological problems and the abuse in their childhoods.
But Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, writing yesterday for the court, rejected that reasoning, saying the Legislature did not intend to allow suit on any claim that was barred prior to the adoption of the 1998 amendment and was not brought during 2003.
Defendants have “an interest in repose,” the chief justice explained, so that once the limitations period expires, a potential defendant has the right to rely on its expiration unless the Legislature specifically declares otherwise.
Lawmakers, the chief justice noted, amended the applicable statute multiple times after the plaintiffs were molested—in 1986, in 1990, in 1994, in 1998, and in 2002—but only the 2002 amendments contained a revival provision, and that provision was inapplicable to the plaintiffs because they missed the window.
The chief justice rejected the contention that by reenacting Sec. 340.1(u) in 2002, the Legislature was indicating an intent to apply the 1998 legislation to plaintiffs who filed suit after 2003.
The argument was flawed, the jurist explained, because the sole purpose of subdivision (u)—which declares that the 1998 legislation “shall apply to any action commenced on or after January 1, 1999, and to any action filed prior to January 1, 1999, and still pending on that date, including any action or causes of action which would have been barred by the laws in effect prior to January 1, 1999” and that “[n]othing in this subdivision is intended to revive actions or causes of action as to which there has been a final adjudication prior to January 1, 1999”—was to clarify that the 1998 amendments were not retroactive.
Cantil-Sakauye was joined by Justices Ming Chin, Marvin Baxter, Kathryn M. Werdegar and Joyce L. Kennard. Justices Carol Corrigan and Goodwin Liu authored separate dissents.
Corrigan agreed with the Court of Appeal, saying the Legislature “[p]lainly” intended to allow plaintiffs such as the Quarry brothers, who did not know in 2003 that they had a claim, to take advantage of revival after that year.
Liu agreed with Corrigan, adding that he was “doubtful of the premise that the Legislature’s 1998 enactment of the age 26 cutoff caused plaintiffs’ undiscovered claims to lapse.” The legislation, he argued, should be read in accordance with its “remedial purpose,” and he suggested the Legislature pass another revival statute clarifying the issue.
The case was argued in the high court by Devin M. Storey and Irwin M. Zalkin, of The Zalkin Law Firm of San Diego, for the plaintiffs, and former Court of Appeal Justice Margaret M. Grignon of the Los Angeles office of Reed Smith for the diocese.
The case is Quarry v. Doe I, 12 S.O.S. 1417.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company