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Court News Ohio

Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Against State Governed by 12-Year Time Limit

The 12-year limit for a childhood sexual abuse victim to file suit applies to sexual abuse claims against the state, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today. The longer statutory deadline takes precedence over a two-year time period for initiating civil actions against the state, the Supreme Court determined.

In the 4-3 decision, Justice Paul E. Pfeifer concluded that the 12-year statute of limitations controls in cases alleging wrongdoing by a public or a private party under the childhood sexual abuse statute. The clock for these claims starts for most alleged victims when they turn 18, according to the law.

For the woman who appealed in this case, though, it remains to be decided whether her lawsuit can go forward. If her claim expired before August 3, 2006, the effective date of the law providing the 12-year time limit, then the longer timeframe cannot apply, the court explained.

The ruling reverses the Tenth District Court of Appeals’ judgment and returns the case to the trial court.

Case History
Uranus Watkins asserts in her lawsuit that she was sexually abused between April 2, 2000, and April 2, 2001, by two employees of the Department of Youth Services (DYS). She was detained during that time at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in Delaware, Ohio. Watkins, now 28, was born on August 1, 1986.

On July 31, 2011, one day before her 26th birthday, Watkins filed her lawsuit against DYS with the Ohio Court of Claims, which considers civil suits against the state and its agencies. The court ruled that the two-year statute of limitations for civil actions against the state applied, and she had filed her complaint too late, more than two years after turning 18.

On appeal, the Tenth District agreed with the Court of Claims.

The legislature intended the 12-year statute of limitations in child sexual abuse law to apply to state as well as private actors, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The legislature intended the 12-year statute of limitations in child sexual abuse law to apply to state as well as private actors, the Supreme Court has ruled.

Relevant Law
Senate Bill 17, effective on August 3, 2006, expanded the time limits for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file suit. Before that, prior law had a one-year statute of limitations for assault and battery. However, the discovery rule provided that the timeframe for a childhood sexual abuse victim to make a claim did not begin until he or she discovered the abuse, the Supreme Court noted. If a child had repressed the memory of his or her abuse, the statute of limitations would not begin to run until the memory resurfaced.

Now, since S.B. 17’s passage, an alleged victim’s cause of action arises, or “accrues,” when he or she reaches majority age, which is 18 for someone without certain disabilities. The law, R.C. 2305.111, provides that any childhood sexual abuse claims must be brought within 12 years after reaching this age.

However, another statute, R.C. 2743.16(A), puts a two-year limit on civil actions against the state. This clock begins ticking at the time the legal claim accrues, but cannot start running until a child reaches the age of majority.

Court’s Analysis
Justice Pfeifer first determined that the state legislature intended the 12-year statute of limitations in R.C. 2305.111 to apply to state as well as private actors. He pointed to the word “any” in the language of R.C. 2305.10(E), which reads, “An action brought by a victim of childhood sexual abuse asserting any claim resulting from childhood sexual abuse, as defined in section 2305.111 of the Revised Code, shall be brought as provided in division (C) of that section.”

Justice Pfeifer wrote, “[A]ny claim resulting from childhood sexual abuse as statutorily defined — without exception and without regard to whether the tortfeasor was a private or state actor — must be brought as provided in R.C. 2305.111(C).”

He also addressed the use of the word "all” in the uncodified portion of S.B. 17, which states , “The amendments to section 2305.111 of the Revised Code made in this act shall apply to all civil actions for assault or battery brought by a victim of childhood sexual abuse based on childhood sexual abuse … [and] to all civil actions brought by a victim of childhood sexual abuse for a claim resulting from childhood sexual abuse ….”

Justice Pfeifer concluded, “[T]he General Assembly allows for no distinction between public and private tortfeasors: R.C. 2305.111(C) applies to all claims. ‘Any’ means any, and ‘all’ means all.”

Supporting this conclusion are various definitions of “childhood sexual abuse” in R.C. 2305.111 that clearly include the conduct of state actors, Justice Pfeifer reasoned. Sexual imposition, gross sexual imposition, and sexual battery encompass situations where the victim is held in a detention facility, and those employees often work for the state, he pointed out. The statute also applies to the actions of teachers, coaches, administrators, and other school or college-level authority figures – who also could be state employees.

“Thus, the very definition of childhood sexual abuse includes the wrongful conduct of state employees,” he explained. “The plain language of R.C. 2305.111 reveals the legislature’s intent that claims against the state resulting from childhood sexual abuse are subject to a 12-year statute of limitations and an accrual date of the age of majority.”

Justice Pfeifer added that a specific statute enacted after a general statute controls when a conflict exists between them. R.C. 2305.111 took effect after R.C. 2743.16(A), and R.C. 2305.111 also provides a specific time limit for one type of civil action while R.C. 2743.16(A) applies broadly to civil lawsuits against the state. He concluded that R.C. 2305.111’s 12-year statute of limitation prevails.

For Watkins
Justice Pfeifer noted that it needs to be determined whether the law before or after S.B. 17 applies to Watkins’ claims. Watkins turned 18 on August 1, 2004, but Justice Pfeifer wrote that the question of when she became aware of her abuse has not been litigated in the lower courts and will determine whether her claims expired before S.B. 17’s passage. The case returns to the trial court to address that issue.

The court declined to consider Watkins’ constitutional claims of an equal protection violation because it was able to resolve the case instead by reviewing the relevant statutes.

The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Justice William M. O’Neill, and Judge Mary Eileen Kilbane the Eighth District Court of Appeals. Judge Kilbane replaced Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, who recused herself in the case.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and in part by Justice Judith L. French. Justice French also wrote a separate dissenting opinion.

Justice O’Donnell concluded that the two-year statute of limitations for claims against the state applies to this case. He pointed out that the childhood sexual abuse law provides an exception to the 12-year statute of limitations when another statute sets out a different time limit. Because of this exception, R.C. 2743.16(A)’s two-year limit takes precedence over the 12-year time period, he explained.

He noted that precedent from the Tenth District supports the interpretation that lawsuits against the state must be filed within two years. In his view, Watkins’ claim against DYS is prohibited because she filed her complaint in July 2012, far longer than 2 years after she turned 18 in 2004.

He also added that Watkins’ equal protection claims fail.

“[T]he two-year statute of limitations for claims against the state arising out of childhood sexual abuse is rationally related to legitimate state interests of discovering and correcting criminal conduct of its employees in an expeditious and timely manner and of conserving the state’s fiscal resources,” he wrote. “Accordingly, applying the two-year statute of limitations set forth in R.C. 2743.16(A) to actions brought against the state involving childhood sexual abuse does not violate equal protection.”

Second Dissent
Justice French agreed with Justice O’Donnell that the two-year statute of limitations applies to child sexual abuse claims against the state. However, she wrote separately because she would not have addressed the equal protection constitutional arguments that Watkins made.

“In light of Watkins’s failure to raise an equal-protection challenge in the Court of Claims, it was not necessary for the court of appeals to address the equal-protection question, nor is it necessary for this court to opine on the constitutionality of applying the two-year statute of limitations in R.C. 2743.16(A) to Watkins’s claims,” she reasoned. “Watkins waived that issue by not raising it in the Court of Claims.”

2013-0824. Watkins v. Dept. of Youth Servs., Slip Opinion No. 2015-Ohio-1776.

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