Federal Judges Dispute Timing of Sexual Abuse Claims

, New York Law Journal

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Yeshiva University High School for Boys
Yeshiva University High School for Boys

With a ruling last week, two federal court judges have now reached different conclusions about whether damages could be sought in cases before them of sexual abuse that occurred decades ago.

Southern District Judge John Koeltl (See Profile) dismissed Twersky v. Yeshiva University, 13 Civ. 4679, a case in which 34 former students at Yeshiva University High School for Boys sought $680 million in damages for alleged abuse between 1968 and 1992 at the hands of an administrator, a teacher, and a one-time student who they claimed was given free run of the dorms.

Koeltl said Thursday the three-year statute of limitations­­—tolled for minorities until claimants reach age 18—has long since run. He rejected an argument that positive statements about alleged abusers to the general community after some abuse had been reported to a school official equitably estopped a defendant school from invoking a statute of limitations defense.

"[T]here is nothing about general statements to the community that prevented the plaintiffs from knowing they were abused, who had abused them, and who employed their abusers," Koeltl said in his 52-page opinion, ruling that "In this case, the statutes of limitations have expired decades ago, and no exceptions apply."

It was how to analyze an exception to the limitations period on which Koeltl differed from a colleague in the Eastern District, Judge Frederic Block (See Profile) in Zimmerman v. Poly Prep Country Day School, 888 F.Supp.2d 317 in 2012.

Orangeburg attorney Kevin Mulhearn represented the plaintiffs in both Zimmerman and in the case before Koeltl. Mulhearn has vowed to appeal Koeltl's ruling.

Mulhearn said that Koeltl made "an absurd distinction" when separating out statements by school officials as generalized or lacking in specificity.

"Basically, we argued what I firmly believed was an accurate statement of New York law, which provides that schools and school officials have an in loco parentis authority over students, which means that every representation a school official makes to a student is to be treated with the same immediacy and intimacy as if the statement had been made by a parent to a child armed with the same information," he said.

In Twersky, the plaintiffs sued the university, administrators and several unnamed members of the board of trustees claiming the school was on notice about the alleged abuse by one-time principal George Finkelstein, former teacher Macy Gordon and former student Richard Andron.

Their lawsuit claimed that the defendants failed to disclose this information to parents, teachers and law enforcement authorities.

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