A 2019 law intended to help victims of child sex abuse sue the people who abused them — and the organizations that allowed it to happen — is unconstitutional, a North Carolina court ruled on Monday.
The law passed the legislature unanimously. It sailed through the Republican-controlled General Assembly with support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, who later publicly pushed for victims to use the new law to go to court.
A major change in the law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for people who were sexually abused as children to be able to sue in civil court. It allowed any sex abuse victim to file a lawsuit in 2020 or 2021, even if they would normally have been barred because the statute of limitations already expired.
That’s the piece that a three-judge panel of Superior Court judges ruled unconstitutional Monday.
“I am disappointed with this decision,” Stein told The (Raleigh) News & Observer in a written statement. “I continue to believe it is constitutional and will continue to defend the law if the decision is appealed.”
Bobby Jenkins, an attorney whose law firm represents plaintiffs in both cases heard by the three-judge panel, said the decision will be appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals.
“The case was going to go to the Court of Appeals no matter who won,” he said Monday.
One of the cases stopped by Monday’s ruling is from Forsyth County and involves a lawsuit against Piney Grove Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and Michael Todd Pegram. The plaintiff in the case is a 39-year-old Forsyth County man who said Pegram, who was a volunteer at the fire department, sexually assaulted him when he was a child at fire station facilities at least twice and showed him pornography.
Attorneys for the Children’s Home and the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church have challenged the constitutionality of the law as well, but their challenges were not part of Monday’s ruling. The Children’s Home and the Western North Carolina Conference have been sued over allegations that house parents sexually assaulted children in the 1960s and 1970s.
Pegram is serving up to 30 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to numerous sexual offenses. He is named as a defendant in another lawsuit involving the Kernersville Family YMCA, where he worked as a counselor.
The sex-abuse law had also paved the way for a lawsuit that was filed against the UNC School of the Arts. That lawsuit now has 39 plaintiffs, all former alumni of the high school program, who allege that faculty members sexually abused them and the administration turned a blind eye.
Other parts of the law, like a section requiring training for teachers to spot signs of potential abuse victims, or a section making it a crime for people to fail to report child abuse to the authorities, were not challenged.
But for many advocates, the statute of limitations change was a hallmark piece of the bill.
“As a former child victim advocate and the mother of a detective who investigates crimes against children, this is deeply personal for me,” said Gastonia Sen. Kathy Harrington, the Republican Senate majority leader and a lead sponsor of the bill, when she filed it in 2019. “Victims and those who work to bring offenders to justice need all the help they can get, and this legislation strengthens our laws to do just that.”
Often victims of abuse don’t immediately come forward, for any number of reasons, especially when they are children. For those who then decide as adults to file lawsuits against their abusers, they often find that it’s too late.
So as the nation grapples with a growing “Me Too” movement — as well as the fallouts from systemic abuse scandals involving entities like the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Boy Scouts of America and USA Gymnastics — state legislators recently decided to rewrite several laws surrounding sex crimes in North Carolina.
Monday’s ruling throws a wrench into the legislature’s plans to address those issues, although it’s still possible that a higher court could reverse the ruling and let the lawsuits keep moving forward.
Headed to the Supreme Court?
The second case stopped by Monday’s ruling involved several former members of the wrestling team at East Gaston High School who were raped as teens by their coach, Gary Goins.
He was convicted in 2014 and sentenced to more than 34 years in prison. But the abuses had all happened more than a decade earlier. So by then the statute of limitations had run out for his victims to sue in civil court — until 2020 when the new law went into effect and allowed them to sue even despite all the time that had passed.
Three of Goins’ victims filed a lawsuit in 2020 against him and the Gaston County Board of Education. The school board fought it, and they won at trial on Monday.
In North Carolina, all constitutional challenges have to go before a three-judge panel, consisting of Superior Court judges from around the state, instead of just a single judge for their original trial. The judges on the panel in Monday’s ruling were Gregory Horne who is from a western judicial district stretching from Boone to just outside Asheville; Imelda Pate, who is from an eastern district centered around Kinston; and Martin McGee, who is from Cabarrus County in the Charlotte suburbs.
The panel ruled 2-1 that the law is unconstitutional.
The two judges in the majority, Horne and Pate, stressed that they felt bound by precedent. In a ruling that sounded almost apologetic at times, they suggested that the issue might be “better suited” for the North Carolina Supreme Court to take up, instead of them.
“Hard cases must not make bad law,” they wrote, ruling that previous case law says the state constitution does bar the legislature from re-opening the statute of limitations, even for “meritorious causes of action.”
The other judge on the panel, McGee, dissented. He disagreed with his colleagues’ analysis and said he would have ruled that the legislature can make such a change — as long as it passes the legal test of whether the change had a rational basis.
“A law providing an avenue in our civil courts for victims of child sexual abuse to hold accountable child abusers, and their enablers, for past actions involving and arising from child sexual abuse undoubtedly would survive” that test, he wrote.
Jenkins said his law firm will continue to file civil claims until the end of the year.
“We firmly believe that victims will prevail and what the General Assembly was trying to do will prevail,” Jenkins said. “We’re going to continue to bring every case we have between now and the end of the year.”
This article is published through the N.C. News Collaborative, a partnership of Lee Enterprises, Gannett and McClatchy newspapers in
North Carolina that aims to better inform readers throughout the state.
Journal reporter Michael Hewlett contributed to this story.