Thousands of sexual abuse lawsuits flood New York courts

Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]

November 27, 2023

By Chris Bragg

As Thanksgiving Day ended, so did a one-year window allowing adult survivors of alleged sexual abuse to file lawsuits seeking monetary damages, regardless of when the abuse occurred.

The Adult Survivors Act, passed by Albany lawmakers in 2022, has spurred thousands of lawsuits, a majority of which alleged sexual abuse had been committed by male prison or jail guards against female inmates. There were a number of lawsuits, including in Erie County, alleging that abuse had been committed by Catholic priests. And there were lawsuits against high-profile figures, including a recent legal summons alleging that New York City Mayor Eric Adams committed sexual assault against a woman in 1993. Adams denied the allegation and said he could not recall ever meeting the accuser.

On Wednesday, a former aide filed a lawsuit against ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his former counsel, and New York State, in State Supreme Court in Albany.

Her attorney wrote in a legal summons that Brittany Commisso had suffered “continuous sexual harassment” including “unwelcome sexual advances, sexualized comments about appearance and personal matters, relations, their dating, their sex life, and her marriage, assignment of humiliating and demeaning tasks, hugs, kisses, sexual touching of the buttocks, and forcible touching of the breast … “

The lawsuit includes Commisso’s previously made allegation that Cuomo forcibly groped her breast during an encounter in the Executive Mansion in 2020. That groping allegation was the subject of a misdemeanor criminal charge brought by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in 2021, a charge that was ultimately dropped by the Albany District Attorney’s Office due to a lack of evidence. Cuomo’s attorney calls the allegations in the new lawsuit “provably false” and a “cash grab.”

The Adult Survivors Act was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022. On Nov. 24, 2022, a one-year window opened during which survivors of sexual assault, who were over 18 when abuse occurred, could file civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages, even if the statute of limitations had expired. That window closed Thursday.

The law is similar in its purpose to the Child Victims Act that gave victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits during a one-year window between 2019 and 2020.

The cases will play out in the coming years in two distinctly different types of venues.

Cases against New York State will generally be heard in the Court of Claims, which solely handles civil cases seeking damages from New York State. Those cases will be decided by judges in bench trials, not by juries, and judges will also render decisions about the degree of monetary damages awarded. Some claimants’ attorneys see the Court of Claims – where the judges are appointed to the positions by New York’s governor – as a less favorable venue than State Supreme Court, where the cases will be decided by juries. But New York State also has a far greater capacity to pay damages than most individuals.

Through Nov. 1, 1,469 total claims had been filed in the Court of Claims, according to the state Office of Court Administration. That number surely grew over the past three weeks before the filing deadline.

Most of the cases filed in the Court of Claims involve allegations of sexual abuse by male prison personnel against female prison inmates across the state. And through Nov. 1, nearly 40% of all Court of Claims lawsuits were centered on alleged abuse at Western New York prisons.

As of three weeks ago, 515 of the claims concerned alleged abuse by personnel at Albion Correctional Facility in Orleans County, a medium-security facility for female prisoners. Sixty-eight claims had been filed by former inmates at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, a minimum-security boot camp-style prison in Chautauqua County for young, nonviolent offenders.

Some of the claims, filed years apart, allege sexual abuse against the same guard at those facilities. For instance, at least three of the claims at Albion allege abuse by David Stupnick of Medina. (Separately, in 2020, Stupnick was sentenced to a six-month jail term after pleading guilty to third-degree criminal sex act with two other female Albion inmates.)

If Court of Claims judges find negligence by the state Department of Corrections and Community Service (DOCCS) contributed to abuse, or cases are settled, taxpayers may face a substantial bill. Some claimants in individual cases are seeking $25 million.

A DOCCS spokesman said in August that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

“The safety and well-being of staff and incarcerated individuals is our top priority,” DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said. “The Department has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined, and if warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution.”

As of Wednesday, 1,382 lawsuits had been filed in county-based State Supreme Courts around New York, according to the Office of Court administration. In those matters, lawsuits were filed against defendants besides New York State, including counties, cities, institutions and individuals.

The final tally of lawsuits filed in Erie County State Supreme Court was 28.

In 11 of them, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office was among the defendants. The Sheriff’s Office could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday concerning the lawsuits, many of which alleged sexual abuse had been committed by male Sheriff’s Office personnel against female detainees.

Seven of the lawsuits in Erie County were filed against various institutions affiliated with the Catholic Church. And several lawsuits were against local medical professionals or institutions.