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Government and Politics

Supreme Court debates statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims
The law says the deadline for a suit involving state employees is two years, but non-state employees is 12 years

Karen Kasler
Justice Paul Pfeifer played an active role in the debate with attorney Peter Glenn-Applegate over the statute of limitations.
Courtesy of The Supreme Court of Ohio
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In The Region:
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.
LISTEN: Supreme Court justices debate over statue of limitations child sexual abuse

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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 law is the appropriate one. 

“Child sex abuse is predicated on secrecy, manipulation and shame and often involves deep, psychological trauma. 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.”

Why two standards?
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. 

O’Connor: “What would she be entitled to do if she were abused by her pediatrician, for example?” 

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

Pfeifer: “Not if he worked for a state hospital.” 

Glenn-Applegate: “That’s correct. 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.”

Lot's of concerns
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. 

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

Pfeifer: “To you, it seems the most reasonable reading.” 

Glenn-Applegate: “Pardon me? I apologize.” 

Pfeifer: “To you it seems the most reasonable reading.” 

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

And here’s Glenn-Applegate presenting to Justice William O’Neill some reasons for the two-year deadline – the first, that a short time frame for lawsuits helps the state identify and deal with abusers quickly. 

Glenn-Applegate: “The second one is that it preserves taxpayer funds. In Mennefee v Queen City Metro, this court said that it is a rational basis for a state passing a law. Third, it comports with – 

O’Neill: “You’ll agree that’s offensive.” 

Glenn-Applegate: “Luckily I have other rational bases as well.” 

O’Neill: “Fortunately.”

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 wealthier employer. 

Pfeifer: “A worker in a youth facility –“ 

Flagg: “Right.” 

Pfeifer: “ – would be one of our lower-paid state employees.” 

Flagg: “That’s true. There would never be redress and recourse –“ 

Pfeifer: “You could have the satisfaction of a win but –“ 

Flagg: “Right, which is therapeutic in and of itself, but not –“ 

Pfeifer: “The financial recovery would be de minimis.”

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