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  Personal Injury
Connecticut Law Tribune
July 29, 1996

The 17-year post-majority statute of limitations in C.G.S. §52-577d for injuries to a minor caused by sexual abuse is not limited to actions against the alleged perpetrator but also applies to parties that may be vicariously or otherwise liable for such abuse.

Doe v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp.
Middlesex J.D., at Middletown (Docket No. CV93-69529)
June 27, 1996

Memorandum of Decision on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Full Text

Stengel, J. On September 6, 1994, the plaintiff, John Doe, filed an amended complaint against the defendants, Norwich Roman Catholic Diocesan Corporation (the diocese) and Father Raymond Jean, for damages sustained as a result of the defendant Jean's alleged sexual abuse of the plaintiff while he was a minor.

On January 20, 1995, the diocese filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) the plaintiff's claims against the diocese are barred by the statute of limitations; (2) the diocese cannot be held liable under the doctrine of respondent superior; and (3) evaluation of the claims against the diocese would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The diocese filed a memorandum of law with its motion, and a supplemental memorandum with supporting affidavits on October 26, 1995. On December 28, 1995, the plaintiff filed a memorandum in opposition, and on April 2, 1996, the diocese filed a reply memorandum with attachments.

According to the complaint, "[on] numerous occasions through March/April, 1971 through May/June, 1972 at the Notre Dame parish house and other locations, the defendant, Raymond Jean, sexually assaulted the plaintiff, John Doe, while he was a minor, causing him great injury and damage." Complaint, 4.

I. Legal Standard

"Summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Home Ins. Co. v. Aetna Life & Casualty Co., 235 Conn. 185, 202, 663 A.2d 1001 (1995).

II. Discussion

A. Statute of Limitations

As a preliminary matter, the court addresses the parties' disagreement as to the applicable statute of limitations. According to the diocese, General Statutes §52-584 applies because the plaintiff's cause of action against it sounds in negligence. The plaintiff contends, however, that the applicable statute of limitations is not §52-584, but rather §52-577d, in which case the plaintiff's action would be timely. Section 52-577d provides that:

General Statutes §52-584 provides, in pertinent part, that: No actin to recover damages for injury to the person. . . caused by negligence. . . shall be brought but within two years from the date when the injury is first sustained or discovered or in the exercise of reasonable care should have been discovered, and except that no action may be brought more than three years from the date of the act or ommission complained of. . .

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 52-577, no action to recover damages for personal injury to a minor, including emotional distress, caused by sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or sexual assault may be brought by such person later than seventeen years from the date such person attains the age of majority.

The diocese argues in the alternative that even if §52-577d is applicable, it only applies to actions against the actual perpetrators of the alleged sexual misconduct.

The recent decisions of several courts that have addressed these issues indicate that §52-577d is the applicable statute of limitations under the circumstances, and that the statute is not limited to actions against the actual perpetrators of the abuse. See, e.g., Nutt v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocese, Docket No. 3:94CV00776 (AVC) (D.Conn. March 28, 1995); Almonte v. New York Medical College, 851 F. Sup. 34 (D.Conn. 1994); Milhomme v. Levola, Superior Court, judicial district of Windham at Putnam, Docket No. 48326 (July 14, 1995, Foley, J., 14 Conn. L. Rptr. 517); Coburn v. Ordner, Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield at Bridgeport, Docket No. 306715 (March 23, 1995, Gormley, J., 14 Conn. L. Rptr. 9); See v. Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., Superior Court, judicial district of Fairfield at Bridgeport, Docket Nos. 300948 and 302072 (September 16, 1993, Freedman, J., 10 Conn. L. Rptr. 51). The court finds the reasoning in these decisions persuasive. Accordingly, the extended statute of limitations in General Statutes §52-577d applies in this case, and the complaint is timely.

B. Respondent Superior

According to the plaintiff, the alleged sexual abuse "occurred while the defendant, Raymond Jean, was acting as a Roman Catholic priest, supervising alter boys, cloaking his conduct with and through the sacraments of the church, all of which were within the scope of his employment, for which the defendant diocese is vicariously liable." The diocese argues, however, that it cannot be held liable under the doctrine of respondent superior.

Connecticut "has long adhered to the principle that in order to hold an employer liable for the intentional torts of his employee, the employee must be acting within the scope of his employment and in furtherance of the employer's business." A-G Foods, Inc. v. Petteridge Farm, Inc., 216 Conn. 200, 208, 579 A.2d 69 (199). "Ordinarily, it is a question of fact as to whether a wilful tort of the servant has occurred within the scope of the servant's employment and was done to further his master's business. . . But there are occasional cases where a servant's digression from duty is so clear-cut that the disposition of the case becomes a matter of law." (Citation omitted.) Id., 207.

Clearly, as a matter of law, when a priest is alleged to have sexually abused a minor, such action cannot be considered within the scope of his employment or in furtherance of the interests of the church. See Nutt v. Norwich Roman Catholic Diocese, supra. Accordingly, the diocese's motion for summary judgment as to the claim based upon the doctrine of respondent superior is granted.

C. Free Exercise Clause

The diocese also argues that any additional claims against it are barred by the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The plaintiff argues in opposition, however, that the negligence claims against the diocese do not implicate any religious belief or practice, and thus, the Free Exercise Clause is inapplicable.


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits any law "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . " U.S. Const., amend. I.

The Supreme Court has held that "[at] a minimum, the protections of the Free Exercise Clause pertain if the law at issue discriminates against some or all religious beliefs or regulates or prohibits conduct because it is undertaken for religious reasons." Church of Lukumi Babalu Ave, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 113 S. Ct. 2217, 2226 (1993). In considering the precise issue presented in this case, the court in Nutt v. Vorwich Roman Catholic Diocese, supra, stated that:

[It] is difficult to see how the plaintiff's claims against the defendants would foster excessive entanglement with religion. The common law doctrine of negligence does not intrude upon the free exercise of religion, as it does not discriminate against [a] religious belief or regulate or prohibited conduct because it is undertaken for religious reasons. . . The court's determination of an action against the defendants based upon their alleged negligent supervision of [a priest] would not prejudice or impose upon any of the religious tenets or practices of Catholicism. Rather, such a determination would involve an examination of the defendants' possible role in allowing one of its [employees] to engage in conduct which they, as employers, as well as society in general[,] expressly prohibit. Since the Supreme Court has consistently failed to allow the Free Exercise Clause to relieve [an] individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs, the defendants [cannot] appropriately implicate the First Amendment as a defense to their alleged negligent conduct.

(Citations omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Id. Accordingly, the diocese's motion for summary judgment based on the Free Exercise Clause is denied.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the diocese's motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. The motion is granted with respect to the plaintiff's claims based upon the doctrine of respondent superior. In all other respects, the motion for summary judgment is denied.

 
 

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