At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the one-year window of opportunity opened for many child sex abuse plaintiffs who were unable to pursue litigation under the statute of limitation.
Under the Child Victims Act, victims up to the age of 55 now have 12 months to sue their alleged abusers or the institutions that employed them. On day one, judges throughout New York State were expected to see thousands of new cases filed.
Where e-filing is allowed, attorneys were ready to file their first lawsuits just after midnight. Elsewhere, county clerk's offices were preparing for a busy morning.
"I think there will be thousands of suits filed statewide," said New York State Supreme Court Judge Paula Feroleto, who is an administrative judge in New York State's Eighth Judicial District, covering eight counties in Western New York.
Of those thousands of cases, the Eighth Judicial District is anticipating about 500 cases within Western New York.
Statewide, 45 judges have been designated to hear Child Victims Act cases. Twelve of those judges are in New York City. In the Eighth Judicial District there are seven. Feroleto, when asked how judges were identified and recruited to handle Western New York cases, explained she first went to Judge Deborah Chimes, who handles the district's asbestos cases, because of her experience in cases involving numerous litigants and case management orders.
Chimes, according to a news release issued by the New York State Unified Court System, will receive cases in both the Seventh and Eights Judicial Districts.
As it was stated in the news release: "While the case is in the pretrial phase, it will also be assigned to a parallel alternative dispute resolution (ADR) track, as appropriate, to one of the designated judges for resolution by settlement. If the case is unable to settle, it will eventually be assigned to a designated judge for trial."
The first cases may go before judges by early to mid-September, according to Feroleto. There will be no extra hands hired to manage the additional cases but Feroleto tells WBFO local judges will be ready to handle the workload.
"I would liken it somewhat to when we had the foreclosure crisis and we had literally thousands of extra filings for the foreclosures," Feroleto said. "You sort of look at your resources, decide where they can best be used. It's like a game of chess, and try to reallocate them as best as you can."
Judges have been issued guidelines to keep cases on schedule. Each case will require a preliminary meeting within 30 days after a judge is assigned, followed by mandatory conferences every 60 days after. Upon the first preliminary hearing, the goal is to complete discovery within a year and begin the trial shortly after. Older revisited cases will be given preference when scheduling begins.
In cases when a plaintiff wishes to maintain anonymity, files may be claimed without using the victim's name. In e-filings, according to Feroleto, the caption may be redacted and allowed to stay that way upon a judge's order. In these cases, plaintiffs may remain anonymous even after the case is resolved.
While child sex abuse accusations against the Catholic Church have dominated news coverage, back cases are certainly not exclusive to that religious institution. Cases are anticipated in other religious denominations and faiths, sports organizations, school districts, scout organizations and other institutions where adults and children are in close - and sometimes private - contact. This raises a question whether there are potential conflicts of interest for some judges who may have ties to any of these organizations, and whether it will make judicial assignments more difficult.
"We have tried to identify some of the conflicts already," Feroleto said. "Of course, as they come up, if the judge has a conflict they will recuse and it will go to another judge. We have enough judges that we should be able to get to a judge that doesn't have a recusal issue on a case."