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Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Deadline for Filing Child Sex Abuse Lawsuits

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The Ohio Supreme Court will decide how long a victim of childhood sexual abuse has to file a lawsuit, if the abuser is a state employee. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler has details.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014 at 4:44 pm

A 2005 state law gives childhood sexual abuse victims 12 years after their 18th birthdays to file lawsuits against their abusers.

A 28-year-old Franklin County woman claims she was raped and abused by two employees while in a Delaware County juvenile detention center in 2000 and 2001. She filed a lawsuit in 2012. But the state’s Court of Claims says under an older law, the deadline for suing state agencies is only two years, so her claim had to be filed by the time she was 20. Jill Flagg is the woman’s lawyer, and she told the Ohio Supreme Court that the claim of childhood sexual abuse is what’s important here, and that dictates which deadline is the appropriate one.

“Child sex abuse is predicated on secrecy, manipulation and shame and often involves deep psychological trauma," Flagg said. "It takes many years and even decades for victims to come forward. That’s what the General Assembly recognized when they enacted Senate Bill 17.”

But the attorney for the Department of Youth Services says the law is clear. Peter Glenn-Applegate acknowledged to Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Paul Pfeifer that the law says the deadline for a suit involving a state employee, whoever it is, is two years.

“What would she be entitled to do if she were abused by her pediatrician, for example?" O'Connor asked.

“That would be subject to the 12-year statute of limitations in the Court of Common Pleas," Glenn-Applegate said.

“Not if he worked for a state hospital," Pfeifer said.

“That’s correct," Glenn-Applegate said. "That would be subject of the Court of Claims statute of limitations, but a private practice physician would be subject to the Court of Claims 12-year."

Most of the half-hour spent in arguments on this case featured Glenn-Applegate, because it was obvious the justices had lots of concerns. And some of their questions and statements sounded skeptical and bordered on sarcastic. Here’s Justice Pfeifer asking Glenn-Applegate if lawsuits against abusive public school teachers and coaches are held to the same two-year standard that the state is arguing for.

“That seems the most reasonable reading of the statute," Glenn-Applegate said, "and I’d point out that it is all about--"

“To you, it seems the most reasonable reading," Pfeifer interrupted.

“Pardon me? I apologize," Glenn-Applegate said.

“To you it seems the most reasonable reading," Pfeifer said.

“The most reasonable reading of the statute. Not the most reasonable policy necessarily, but of course policy determinations are for the General Assembly," Glenn-Applegate said.

The woman’s attorney, Jill Flagg, was eventually brought back and admitted she agreed that her client could still sue the individual guards who abused her. But Justice Pfeifer tossed her a question about the impact of suing a person versus the abuser’s much more powerful and wealthier employer.

“A worker in a youth facility would be one of our lower-paid state employees," Pfeifer said.

“That’s true. There would never be redress and recourse," Flagg said.

“You could have the satisfaction of a win but--" Pfeifer said.

“Right, which is therapeutic in and of itself, but not--" Flagg said.

"The financial recovery would be de minimis," Pfeifer said.

The woman’s original lawsuit asks for $50,000 in damages. There’s no timeline on when the Supreme Court might deliver a decision.