The Guardian [London, England]
November 24, 2023
By Edward Helmore
The Adult Survivors Act temporarily expanded the statute of limitations, but lawyers say a year is not enough
New York’s year-long “look-back” window on sexual assault closed last night after a flurry of last-minute claims against high-profile figures including the singer Axl Rose, the actor Jamie Foxx and the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams.
Some of the alleged incidents date back decades, in claims that would otherwise have fallen outside the statute of limitations.
The New York state law, which allowed adult sexual abuse survivors to sue their abusers beyond the statute of limitations for the course of one year, saw approximately 2,500 claims. It closed at midnight on Thursday.
It grabbed headlines immediately when the writer E Jean Carroll restated a rape and defamation claim against Donald Trump mere minutes after the look-back window opened.
Late on Wednesday night, a summons against Adams alleged “sexual assault, battery and employment discrimination” by Adams when he and the defendant both worked for the city of New York in 1993.
The accusation against Foxx also came as the law was expiring. Other accusations were filed against photographer Terry Richardson, music producer Jimmy Iovine, comedian Bill Cosby and others.
The Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose was accused of a rape in a Manhattan hotel room more than three decades ago by the actor and model Sheila Kennedy. “Rose used his fame, status, and power as a celebrity and performer in the music industry to gain access to manipulate, control, and violently sexually assault Kennedy,” Kennedy’s suit alleges.
One of the last claims was an accusation by the singer Cassie Ventura against Sean “Diddy” Combs, alleging rape and severe physical abuse during their relationship. Combs swiftly settled with Ventura. “Just so we’re clear, a decision to settle a lawsuit, especially in 2023, is in no way an admission of wrongdoing,” Combs’s attorney Ben Brafman said in a statement.
Most of the cases will take years to come to court, if they ever do, but the most high-profile case so far has already reached a conclusion: a jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming Carroll and ordered him to pay $5m in damages.
The 2,500-odd claims are fewer than the 11,000 claims that were filed during 2019’s Child Victims Act window, a similar window – in that case, two years – that temporarily expanded New York’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases.
Beyond a year-long supply of headlines featuring high-profile names, many say that the adult survivors window, signed into law by the New York governor, Kathy Hochul, in May last year, may not have lasted long enough to address all the potential claims by survivors. It was noted that many victims do not have powerful law firms behind them with a possible settlement award at the end of the process.
“One-year windows tend to be driven by a plan to go after certain money in certain cases, not because some generic law professor is interested in statutes of limitations,” said Wendy Murphy, a civil and constitutional rights attorney at the Women’s and Children’s Advocacy Project in Boston.
“The first wave tends to be valuable financially or, as with the Trump situation, politically, and always driven by law firms that knew exactly how much was at stake and how to get [it].”
Many of the claims filed under the Adult Survivors Act have a powerful institution named as a defendant.
Several were brought by the law firm Wigdor, which helped push for the law that allows for people who were sexually assaulted at work or in the care of an institution like a hospital or jail to sue that entity.
Doug Wigdor, who represented women who testified against Harvey Weinstein at his trial for rape and criminal sex acts, said last year that he anticipated “very interesting cases that come about in the employment cases where powerful men, who were supervising women or overseeing women, sexually assaulted them, and they will be able to hold their perpetrator accountable but also their employers”.
That has come to pass. Last month, the actor Julia Ormond filed a lawsuit against Weinstein claiming the movie mogul raped her in 1995 and naming Disney and CAA as defendants for allegedly telling her to stay quiet after the assault. Earlier this week, a new lawsuit alleging rape was also filed against the comedian Bill Cosby under the Adult Survivors Act, naming NBCUniversal, which broadcast The Cosby Show, and the production companies associated with it as co-defendants.
Many have denied the claims. Rape accusations were brought against Leon Black, the billionaire co-founder of the private equity firm Apollo by a victim who alleges she was assaulted in Jeffrey Epstein’s Manhattan mansion and names the disgraced financier’s estate as a co-defendant. Black then countersued Wigdor for malicious prosecution, claiming that the firm’s business model is based on threatening “to sue defendants with scandalous allegations that can be avoided only at the cost of a large settlement, of which Wigdor takes a substantial cut”.
The reach of the law – and the lawyers using it – has been extraordinary. Adverts on New York subway trains promote a lawsuit for the victims of the convicted sexual abuser and former gynecologist Robert Hadden, advising MTA riders that “time is on our side, but it’s not unlimited”, and to join a class action against Hadden and Columbia University hospital.
Among his accusers is Evelyn Yang, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who alleges Hadden assaulted her in 2012 while she was seven months pregnant. Some 159 survivors have signed up through a single law firm, Herman Law, and there maybe thousands more.
The scale of some of the other cases is also mind-boggling. Approximately 1,800 women, many represented by law firm Slater Slater Schulman, claim they were sexually abused while incarcerated in county jails and state prisons by mostly male corrections officers.
“It’s a crazy number,” Adam Slater, a managing partner, told the New York Daily Record earlier this month. Slater noted that the detainee-guard relationship is an extreme power imbalance and anyone in correctional custody is legally incapable of consent.
Some attorneys say it’s too soon to judge how effective the window has been in bringing abusers to justice.
“Most of these lawsuits are in the early stages and not a single trial date has been set,” said Jacob Eidinger, a communications director at Crumiller, who worked at Wigdor for five years during the height of the #MeToo movement.
Eidinger said there were already efforts to re-extend the window when the New York legislature opens next year. But, he added, the most important element of the law was to add institutional liability so that claims were not only filed against the individual abuser but also an institution that had protected or otherwise enabled the abuser.
The high-profile media and entertainment cases that have been filed may serve a purpose of publicizing the window, but there was no money attached to the legislation to bring it to the public’s attention, and now it has closed before individuals with less awareness of their rights have had time to come forward to seek accountability.
“One year is not nearly enough time for the survivors to come forward,” said Eidinger. His firm and others, he said, had recently been bombarded with messages from potential clients.
“It’s not enough to make sure that people know this law exists but you also have to take into account that if someone was abused years or decades ago to suddenly come forward to see justice against an abuser is a difficult decision to make,” he added. “But unfortunately unless the defendant has a lot of money and there is institutional liability, then it’s going to be difficult for the client to financially justify going into civil court.”
The fact that there is no stated reason for the cut-off on the Adult Survivors Act has baffled some.
“Why would you want a cut-off date? Why would you not want to be very clear to anyone who had done this sort of behavior that [you] will never have a day of peace, or be able to look over your shoulder and not wonder if there’s a lawsuit coming against you tomorrow, next week, next month, next year,” said Murphy.
Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html