Top NC court to hear multiple SAFE Child Act cases in September

Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, top left, and Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, championed the SAFE Child Act in 2019.

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  • The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear five cases on Sept. 18 related to the SAFE Child Act.
  • The 2019 state law opened a two-year window in 2020 and 2021 for alleged victims of child sexual abuse to file new lawsuits based on that abuse. The lawsuits otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations.
  • In each case, defendants challenge a lower court ruling that favored SAFE Child Act plaintiffs.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has scheduled a full work day in September for cases related to the SAFE Child Act. The 2019 state law allowed alleged victims of child sex abuse to file lawsuits in 2020 and 2021, years after those suits had been barred by the statute of limitations.

All five cases scheduled for oral arguments on Sept. 18 have ties to the SAFE Child Act. McKinney v. Goins involves claims against the Gaston County school board. Defendants in other cases include the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, Western NC Conference of the United Methodist Church, and Home Missioners of America.

The Charlotte Diocese filed paperwork in June asking North Carolina’s highest court to rule against plaintiffs in two SAFE Child Act cases. The church argued that courts issued final rulings against both plaintiffs roughly a decade ago.

The state Supreme Court agreed to take the two cases in March. Plaintiffs suing the Diocese are listed anonymously as John Doe and John Doe 1K.

Both cases involve the 2019 SAFE Chlld Act. The legislation opened a two-year window for alleged victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits that otherwise would have been barred by the statute of limitations.

“Dozens of cases pending in North Carolina’s court system — including one before this Court — require the reviewing court to determine whether Section 4.2(b) of the SAFE Child Act, which purports to revive certain time-bar[r]ed claims for childhood sexual abuse, is unconstitutional. This is not one of those cases,” wrote Joshua Davey, the lawyer representing the Diocese.

“As both the Superior Court and Court of Appeals correctly recognized, this case can be easily disposed of on res judicata grounds,” Davey wrote.

The legal principle of “res judicata” bars the same parties from pursuing a case a second time after courts have issued a final decision.

“Tracing its origins to Roman law, res judicata has been a foundational principle of American law since the Founding, and of English law before that, with the purpose of preserving the fundamental fairness and stability of our justice system,” Davey wrote.

“The principle squarely applies here, as Plaintiffs’ complaints raise claims against the Diocese virtually identical to, and arising from the same conduct as, those raised in complaints Plaintiffs filed in 2011,” he explained. “Those claims were ultimately dismissed, resulting in final judgments in favor of the Diocese in 2014 and 2015. Under basic principles of res judicata, those claims cannot be re-litigated now.”

The two plaintiffs argue that the SAFE Child Act “voids res judicata to revive their claims,” Davey wrote. “But that is wrong — Section 4.2(b) says nothing about reviving claims barred by res judicata, and any contrary interpretation would violate the separation of powers doctrine embedded in our constitution by allowing an act of the General Assembly to void or alter a final judgment issued by the judicial branch.”

The Diocese also argues that the SAFE Child Act doesn’t cover the John Doe plaintiffs’ specific claims. The state Supreme Court could resolve both cases without addressing the law’s constitutionality, Davey wrote. “But if it does reach that question, the Court should hold that under more than a century of well-settled precedent, revival of time-barred claims is foreclosed by our State’s Constitution.”

State Attorney General Josh Stein defended the SAFE Child Act in an April court filing in the Diocese cases. Acting on Stein’s behalf, state Solicitor General Ryan Park filed a court document labeling the SAFE Child Act a “landmark piece of legislation aimed at protecting our State’s children from sexual abuse.”

The Republican-led General Assembly approved the measure with unanimous bipartisan support. The Attorney General’s Office “participated in the legislative process that led to the passage of the SAFE Child Act,” Park wrote.

Stein is now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Park’s court filing labeled the two-year window “an important part of the law.” The document offered two reasons for Stein to file a friend-of-the-court brief representing state government.

“First, the Attorney General has an interest in defending our State’s laws,” Park wrote. “The Attorney General serves as the State’s chief legal officer, and has the authority to ‘defend all actions in the appellate division in which the State shall be interested, or a party.’ Given these roles, the Attorney General has an interest in defending the SAFE Child Act’s revival provision against constitutional challenges.”

“Second, the State has an interest in ensuring that the SAFE Child Act can fulfill one of its core purposes: giving victims of child sexual abuse a meaningful opportunity to seek redress,” Park explained. “Protecting children is a ‘compelling governmental interest.’ That interest is furthered by the availability of civil actions that can deter abusive behavior and provide redress to victims of child sexual abuse.”

Stein’s brief shows that “constitutional text, history, and precedent all demonstrate that the revival provision is constitutional,” Park wrote.

The plaintiffs filed their own state Supreme Court brief in April defending the SAFE Child Act. Both were “repeatedly sexually abused by priests of the defendant Diocese as children,” according to the brief.

Both had filed lawsuits against the Diocese that were dismissed as time-barred. After the General Assembly approved the SAFE Child Act, the plaintiffs filed new suits in April 2020, during the two-year window connected to the state law.

A trial court dismissed the suits in January 2021. The state Court of Appeals upheld those rulings in May 2022. The state’s high court agreed to take the cases in March.

The state Supreme Court brief emphasized the legislature’s reasons for reopening child sex abuse cases.

“As many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys suffer sexual abuse in childhood,” wrote lawyer Sam McGee. “According to the [Centers for Disease Control], this abuse can ‘affect how a person thinks, acts, and feels over a lifetime, resulting in short- and long-term physical and mental/emotional health consequences.’ These effects are known to include increased rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, depression, and suicide.”

The petition cited an “economic burden on society” totaling “billions of dollars.”

“What the medical community now understands that it did not in the past, is that the very psychological damage done to victims of childhood sexual abuse causes them to delay disclosure of their abuse, if they ever disclose at all,” McGee wrote. “As a direct result of the abuse itself, victims delay ‘years, often decades, before disclosing to others that they have been victims of abuse.’”

The average age of disclosure is 52, according to the brief.

“It is against this backdrop that the General Assembly unanimously passed the SAFE Child Act, seeking to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse, and to create a two-year window which ‘revives any civil action … previously time-barred’ so that victims to whom the courthouse doors had been locked could have their day in Court,” McGee wrote.

“The General Assembly explicitly saw this as a ‘one time deal’” for alleged victims who were at least 38 years old.

“Numerous cases are pending across North Carolina at this time presenting the issue of whether the General Assembly had the constitutional authority to do this, or whether it violated in some manner the constitutional rights of potential defendants in cases brought under the SAFE Child Act,” according to the brief.

State Supreme Court Justice Allison Riggs will not take part in the separate case of McKinney v. Goins. Riggs wrote the state Appeals Court’s September 2023 opinion in McKinney. A split Appeals Court panel ruled against the Gaston school board.

“Defendant Gaston County Board of Education (the “Board”) — who, per the complaint in this case, failed to protect the children in its care from a sexually abusive employee over a period of years — asks us to elevate a purely procedural statute of limitations defense into an inviolable constitutional right to be free from any civil liability for whatever misdeeds would be provable at trial,” Riggs wrote.

“But affording all statutes of limitation that exceptional status is nowhere required by the constitutional text, nor is it mandated by the precedents of our Supreme Court,” Riggs added. “Because adopting the Board’s position would require us to strike down as unconstitutional a duly enacted statute of our General Assembly and disregard the narrowly crafted legislation designed to address a stunningly pressing problem affecting vulnerable children across the state, we decline to convert an affirmative defense into a free pass for those who engaged in and covered up atrocious child sexual abuse. After careful review, we reverse the trial court and remand for further proceedings.”

Judge Jeff Carpenter dissented from the 2-1 ruling.

“I will start by noting our common ground,” Carpenter wrote. “I completely agree: Sexual abuse of children is vile. I agree that striking down legislation as facially unconstitutional is strong medicine, only suitable for clear constitutional violations. I also agree that the prohibition of reviving time-barred claims is not a textual one; the text of the North Carolina Constitution lacks such a provision.”

“But that is where our common ground ends,” he added. “We are bound by the precedents of this Court and the North Carolina Supreme Court. Stare decisis is not limited to decisions this Court deems well-reasoned. Stare decisis is not limited to decisions that produce desirable results.”

“We lack the authority to overrule the North Carolina Supreme Court, and it appears that my colleagues and I disagree on this point,” Carpenter wrote. He argued that a precedent case known as Wilkes County v. Forester should have guided the Appeals Court’s decision.

“Regardless of whether Wilkes produces a desirable outcome or whether it is a bastion of textualism, Wilkes is an opinion from the highest court in our state, and it exceeds our power to overrule it,” according to the dissent. “In my view, the Majority is overruling several binding cases from this Court, and the Majority effectively overrules Wilkes, itself.”

In Cohane v. The Home Missioners of America, also scheduled for oral argument on Sept. 18, defendants urge the state Supreme Court to reverse an Appeals Court ruling allowing a SAFE Child Act lawsuit to proceed.

In Fore v. The Western NC Conference of the United Methodist Church, defendants challenge a court order releasing records of alleged child sexual abuse related to a SAFE Chlld Act complaint.

There is no deadline for the state’s highest court to rule on the SAFE Child Act cases after oral arguments in September.