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12-Year Time Limit for Filing Child Sexual Abuse Suits Does Not Stop Running Based on Repressed Memories

Limitations Period Begins to Run on Victim’s 18th Birthday

2009-0953.  Pratte v. Stewart, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-1860.
Greene App. No. 08-CA-95, 2009-Ohio-1768.  Judgment of the court of appeals affirmed.
Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Brown, C.J., not participating.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2010/2010-Ohio-1860.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(May 5, 2010) The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that 2006 legislation unambiguously sets a 12-year statute of limitations (time limit) for the filing of civil lawsuits based on childhood sexual abuse that occurred after the Aug. 3, 2006 effective date of that legislation and applies that same 12-year limitations period to the filing of suits based on abuse that occurred prior to Aug. 3, 2006, if no prior claim has been filed and if the limitations period under the previous version of the law had not expired before the new law took effect.

The Court held further that the 12-year time limit for filing child sexual abuse suits does not begin to run until a child victim reaches the age of majority (18).  The Court additionally held that after a victim’s 18th birthday, the 12-year limitations period is not tolled (stopped from running) based on the victim’s failure to “discover” or recall the abuse due to repressed memories of those events because the legislation does not contain a tolling provision for persons with repressed memories. 

The Court’s 6-0 decision, which affirmed a ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeals, was written by Justice Maureen O’Connor.

Effective Aug. 3, 2006, the General Assembly enacted R.C. 2305.111(C), legislation that increased the state’s former statute of limitations for a child sexual abuse victim to file a civil suit against his or her alleged abuser from one year after the victim reached the age of majority to 12 years after reaching the age of majority – in effect, extending the filing deadline to the victim’s 30th birthday.

On April 14, 2008, Amy Pratte, who was then 33 years old, filed a civil suit in the Greene County Court of Common Pleas seeking damages from Rodney Stewart for alleged sexual abuse she suffered as a child. In her complaint, Pratte alleged that she had unconsciously repressed the memories of Stewart’s abusive conduct throughout her childhood and as a young adult, until a news story she saw on April 20, 2007 caused her to recover those memories.

While acknowledging that the statutory time limit in R.C. 2305.111(C) had expired before she filed her claims against Stewart, Pratte argued that a 1994 Supreme Court of Ohio decision, Ault v. Jasko, had held that the statute of limitations for filing child sexual abuse claims is tolled during any period in which a victim failed to “discover” that abuse because he or she had repressed memories of those events. Pratte asserted that because the legislature had not expressly denounced Ault when it enacted R.C. 2305.111(C), Ault remained controlling precedent and allowed her to file suit against Stewart within one year after recovering her memories of the abuse on April 20, 2007, regardless of her age at the time of filing. 

Stewart filed a motion asking the trial court to dismiss Pratte’s complaint on the basis that it had not been filed within the 30th-birthday deadline set forth in R.C. 2305.111. The trial court granted Stewart’s motion to dismiss, finding that the legislative intent in granting a minor 12 years after reaching majority in which to bring an action for childhood sexual abuse was to permit the minor a period of time to recall repressed memories. The trial court therefore rejected Pratte’s arguments and held that her claim was filed beyond the time permitted by R.C. 2305.111(C).

Pratte appealed. The 2nd District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding that “the legislature by enacting R.C.2305.10(G) states that the twelve-year limitation period applies regardless of the previous rule of law established in Ault.” The court of appeals further concluded that the legislature intended to apply R.C. 2305.111(C) retroactively. Pratte sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 2nd District’s decision.

Writing for a unanimous Court in today’s decision, Justice O’Connor pointed to uncodified language included in the bill enacting R.C. 2305.111 that she said plainly indicated legislative intent that the new 12-year statute of limitations be applied retroactively to child sexual abuse claims that arose prior to Aug. 3, 2006, for which no prior civil action had been filed and for which the limitations period applicable under the prior version of the law had not expired. 

Based on that language and the Court’s determination that the changes to the limitations period enacted by the legislature were remedial in nature and did not interfere with Pratte’s exercise of a substantive right, Justice O’Connor concluded: “In accordance with the constitutional principles espoused in Groch (v. Gen. Motors Corp., 2008), the retroactive application of the 12-year limitations period in R.C. 2305.111(C) does not violate Section 16, Article I of the Ohio Constitution. Pratte did not have a vested right in the common-law discovery rule announced in Ault, and we would offend the separation-of-powers doctrine by invalidating the legislature’s decision to impose a reasonable statute of limitations for claims of childhood sexual abuse.”

In also rejecting Pratte’s claim that the repressed memory tolling mechanism in Ault remained viable after the enactment of R.C. 2305.111(C), Justice O’Connor wrote: “We find that the language of R.C. 2305.111(C) is plain and unambiguous. ... The statute clearly provides that a cause of action brought by a victim of childhood sexual abuse asserting any claim resulting from childhood abuse accrues upon the date on which the victim reaches the age of majority. The only exception to the accrual of the cause of action on the date the victim reaches the age of majority is when the defendant fraudulently conceals facts from the plaintiff.  While R.C. 2305.111(C) explicitly sets forth a tolling provision for cases involving fraudulent concealment, the statute does not contain a tolling provision for persons with repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. The legislature could have included a tolling provision for repressed memory, but it chose not to do so. That decision is a legislative prerogative that we are not permitted to overrule. Pratte is asking this court to disregard that rule and to contravene established axioms of statutory construction by inserting words in the statute that were not used by the General Assembly.”

“We are cognizant of the proposition that some victims of childhood sexual abuse may not recover their memories of the abuse prior to the expiration of the 12-year statute of limitations, and we are not without compassion for those victims,” Justice O’Connor wrote.  “But this court would invade the province of the legislature and violate the separation of powers if it rewrote the statute to include a tolling provision for repressed memory. ... This court will not engage in such a practice and must leave it to the General Assembly to rewrite the statute if it deems it necessary.”

Chief Justice Eric Brown did not participate in the Court’s deliberations or decision in the case.

Konrad Kircher, 513.229.7996, for Amy Pratte.

Scott E. Wright, 614.228.2678, for Rodney Stewart.

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