Hot Docs: Court rules that sexual abuse victim waited too long to file claims against Catholic Archdiocese

February 7, 2013

Law deadlineWe’re all guilty of a little procrastination at times.  For most of us, a task doesn’t take high priority until a deadline is imminent.

In general, there’s little harm in waiting until the deadline approaches to finish a project.

Of course, you have to actually be aware of when these deadlines fall – an especially weighty detail in the practice of law.

If you miss a deadline in a legal matter, there can be all kinds of serious consequences – not the least of which is missing out on a claim entirely.

A ruling from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin is a perfect example of this.

The bankruptcy case was filed in January 2011 under Chapter 11 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which faces more than a dozen civil lawsuits over its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases.

On September 15, 2011, Roy Ebert filed a Proof of Claim (a document filed in bankruptcy court to make a claim against the assets of the bankruptcy debtor) against the Archdiocese alleging “that Father George Nuedling sexually assaulted [Ebert] in 1963 when [he] was an altar boy and fourth grade student at St. Lawrence Catholic School in Milwaukee.”

Since the statute of limitations for negligence claims within the state of Wisconsin is three years, the deadline to file such a claim against the Archdiocese has long since passed.

However, given that the majority of the alleged sexual abuse by clergy occurred over twenty years ago, the Archdiocese wouldn’t be filing for bankruptcy protection because of these claims if they were all time-barred.

And the Archdiocese’s legal woes aren’t stemming from negligence actions that occurred back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s – they are from fraud claims.

The alleged fraud in these lawsuits is that the Archdiocese knew of and subsequently covered up the histories of child molesters of certain clergy, and further represented, after relocating these priests to other parishes, that they were not dangerous to children.

Hot Doc: In re Archdiocese of Milwaukee

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The statute of limitation for these claims is six years starting from the time that the aggrieved party “discovered or should have discovered” the fraud.

In Ebert’s case, the court looked to correspondences between his and the Archdiocese’s attorney, with Ebert’s attorney claiming that the Archdiocese knew back in the 1960s that Father Nuedling was an active sexual predator, a claim that the Archdiocese’s attorney denied.  The date of the last correspondence was February 5, 2003.

The court characterized Ebert’s attorney’s correspondence as a “demand letter” that “demonstrated that [Ebert and his attorney] suspected the Debtor’s fraudulent conduct.”

The court used this date as the start of the statute of limitations period, and since no claim had been filed until 2011, the court found that the statute of limitations for Ebert’s claims had expired.

Ebert’s final argument against this result was that the court should apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel to prevent the Archdiocese from raising the statute of limitations defense.

Equitable estoppel applies in situations such as these when the conduct or representations of the party asserting a statute of limitations defense “were so unfair and misleading as to outbalance the public’s interest in setting a limitation on bringing actions.”

However, since the conduct giving rise to the equitable estoppel claim must be “separate and distinct” from the actual fraud claims at the center of the lawsuit, the court rejected Ebert’s argument, finding that the Archdiocese’s attorney’s statement that it did not know about Father Nuedling’s history of sexual abuse was “part and parcel” of the original alleged misconduct asserted by Ebert.

Furthermore, even if the conduct was separate and distinct, it was completely speculative – there was nothing substantive to back up Ebert’s claims (that’s kind of what discovery is for).

The court concluded by offering its sympathies “for the abuse suffered by [Ebert] and the adverse consequences he has endured through no fault of his own.”

Nevertheless, this sympathy wasn’t so overwhelming as to compel the court to deviate from established law.

If someone in Ebert’s situation can’t persuade a judge to bend the rules for him, it’s unlikely that anyone else would be able to achieve that result, regardless of the tragedy of his or her circumstances.

And that’s why you have to pay attention to deadlines.