Flood of Claims Follows Maine’s Retroactive Abolition Of Statute of Limitations
FOR CLAIMS OF CHILD SEX ABUSE
As previously noted in this Reporter, the Maine Legislature amended the statute of limitations for claims of child sex abuse, effective July 1, 2021, in an effort to eliminate, completely and retroactively, the time limits for bringing such claims. 14 M.R.S. § 752-C, as amended, provides that “all actions based upon sexual acts toward minors regardless of the date of the sexual act and regardless of whether the statute of limitations on such actions expired prior to the effective date of this subsection . . . may be commenced at any time.” In short, the new version of the statute purports to revive claims on which previous time limits expired decades ago.
The consequence of that legislative act has been a profusion of claims arising from events alleged to have occurred from the 1940s through the 1980s. Few of these new actions are being filed against the individuals who are supposed to have sexually abused the claimants as children; instead, most of the claims are being filed against institutional defendants like religious organizations, youth organizations, schools, and summer camps. Media reports based on interviews with plaintiffs’ firms around the state suggest that the number of previously time-barred cases that will ultimately surface because of the change in the statute will be in the hundreds. More than 70 claimants with previously time-barred actions have come forward in Maine since the statute was amended to make claims against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland alone. Fifteen of those cases are now in suit in the Maine Superior Court, which is coordinating case management across all related cases. In the cases that are in suit, the parties have raised and briefed, but the court has not yet decided, two threshold questions: first, whether the Maine legislature has the authority to abolish the statute of limitations on these claims retroactively, and second, whether 14 M.R.S. § 752-C can be applied to institutional defendants at all.
The Constitutional Argument in a Nutshell
In a line of cases decided by Maine’s highest court stretching over 34 years, the court has repeatedly said, albeit in dicta, that the legislature may alter a statute of limitations before it has expired but may not alter a statute of limitations so as to revive a previously barred claim. See Dobson v. Quinn Freight Lines, Inc., 415 A.2d 814, 816 (Me. 1980); Angell v. Hallee, 2014 ME 72, ¶ 6, 92 A.3d 1154. Moreover, the Maine Law Court has also recognized consistently that there is a “vested rights” doctrine rooted in the due process protections of the Maine State Constitution. NECEC Transmission LLC v. Bureau of Parks & Lands, 2022 ME 48, ¶ 41, 281 A.3d 618. These principles form the backbone of the argument that the legislature exceeded its authority, so as a matter of due process and fundamental fairness, the amendments to the statute of limitations cannot be applied retroactively.
On the other hand, there is also authority for the proposition that Maine and federal due process protections are generally coextensive, see, Doe v. Williams, 2013 ME 24, ¶¶ 61, 65, 61 A.3d 718, and there is no per se federal due process protection for a statute of limitations defense. Chase Securities Corp. v. Donaldson, 325 U.S. 304 (1945) (there is no vested property right in statute of limitations defense such that a legislative change reviving an otherwise time barred cause of action violates defendant’s due process rights). State courts that have considered similar issues have arrived at inconsistent results. See, Mitchell v. Roberts, 2020 UT 34, 469 P.3d 901 (invalidating revival window statute on state due process grounds); Doe v. Hartford Roman Catholic Diocesan Corp., 317 Conn. 357, 119 A.3d 462 (2015) (rejecting state due process argument).
The Statutory Construction Argument in a Nutshell
In at least one Superior Court decision, 14 M.R.S. § 752-C was held to be inapplicable on its face to defendants who did not themselves commit sexual acts. In Me. Human Rights Comm’n ex rel. Pitts v. Warren, No. KENSC-CV-20-85, 2021 Me. Super. LEXIS 153, at *3-4 (March 12, 2021), the Superior Court held that 14 M.R.S. § 752-C applies only to the defendant actually accused of committing the “sexual act” or “sexual contact” and not to any other defendant. In Warren, a plaintiff whose minor daughter was sexually assaulted by the plaintiff’s boyfriend, brought a civil action against her landlord and the landlord’s manager alleging that they sought to evict her in violation of her civil rights after learning of the sexual assault. Id. at *2-3. Although the plaintiff’s claims against the landlord and manager defendants were barred under the Maine Human Rights Act’s two-year limit, the plaintiff tenant argued that § 752-C trumped that statute of limitations, because her action was based on a sexual act toward a minor. The court disagreed, granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and interpreted § 752-C as follows:
The phrase “sexual acts toward minors” is expressly defined to mean a “sexual act” and “sexual contact,” as defined in 17-A M.R.S. §§ 251(1)(C) & (D), “that are committed against or engaged in with a person under the age of twenty.” 14 M.R.S. §§ 552-C(2)(A) & (B). In the court’s view, the statute was intended to eliminate the state of limitations in civil cases where a defendant has “committed” or “engaged in” a sexual act or sexual contact against or with a minor. To expand the applicability of section 752-C to include the claims made here against [the defendant landlord] and [defendant manager] would stretch the language of the statute far beyond any reasonable reading.
Id. at *3-4.
In a different Maine Superior Court case before a different judge, however, the court arrived at a different interpretation. In Boyden v. Michaud, No. CV-07-276, 2008 WL 4106441 (Me. Super. May 14, 2008), the court addressed an argument by a defendant accused of having allowed a sex act toward a minor to occur through negligence that § 752-C could not be applied to extend the statute of limitations on the claim asserted against it. After characterizing the question as “razor thin,” the court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that “the focus of the statute at hand, as gleaned from the language, is on actions flowing from a particular type of harm, not on the nature of the party or parties causing the harm.” Boyden, supra (citing Almonte v. N.Y. Med. Coll., 851 F. Supp. 34 (1994).
Maine’s highest court has not yet resolved the apparent conflict.
Electronic access to all court records in the current cases is available through the Maine Court system’s Odyssey portal at https://www.courts.maine.gov/ecourts/access.html. The lead case is Docket No. BCD-CIV-2022-00048.