Nov 30, 2022 - Economy & Business

The lawsuit against Leon Black is just the beginning

Illustration of a statue of justice with torn paper over her eyes revealing a stack of papers beneath

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Lawyers are expected to field a wave of sexual abuse complaints in New York over the next year, thanks to a new state law that temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on such cases.

Driving the news: Billionaire and Apollo Management co-founder Leon Black was sued on Monday under the new Adult Survivors Act by a woman who accused him of raping her 20 years ago.

  • Former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll filed suit against former President Trump for battery and defamation under this law, as soon as it went into effect last week. Both Black and Trump have denied the respective allegations against them.
  • "We've already gotten dozens of inquiries," said Susan Crumiller, a lawyer and co-founder of the Survivors Law Project, which is gearing up to take on such cases.

Details: Passed this spring in New York, the law opens up a one-year window for survivors of sexual assault to file civil lawsuits against their abusers and any institutions — like the companies that employed them — that may have protected them.

  • The law is modeled on the 2019 Child Victims Act, which allowed those who said they'd been abused as children to file lawsuits; advocates had pushed for its passage for more than a decade.
  • Both laws passed in part because of increased awareness and attention to these issues in the wake of a series of high-profile cases in recent years.
  • Ultimately, more than 10,000 cases were filed using the Child Victims Act — including against the Boy Scouts of America and dioceses within the Catholic Church. The Scouts and several of the dioceses sought bankruptcy protection as a result.

The big picture: Sexual assault survivors and their advocates say that the statute of limitations on many of these types of cases is too short.

  • Until 2019, victims had three years to file a civil lawsuit over sexual assault claims in New York. Now the limit is 20 years. But the change wasn't retroactive; hence the window to sue granted by this new law.
  • Victims often don't come forward right away after they are raped or attacked; they're often ashamed, fearful of retribution or, simply, of just not being believed.
  • The short window that victims had to file suits was a "massive disservice" to victims and "allows abusers off the hook entirely," said Elisa Batista, a campaign directors with the advocacy group UltraViolet.

What to watch: Still, even years after the fact, coming forward with an allegation is a huge decision. The hope of advocates is that with many years' distance — and with a greater cultural understanding of assault —  survivors will feel more emboldened.

  • "Most people are afraid of being scorned or blamed or accused of lying," said Jeanne Christensen, a partner at Wigdor, the law firm that filed the suit against Black this week, adding that often one of the first questions clients ask is "What if my employer finds out, could I lose my job?"
  • Black's lawyer, Susan Estrich, said in a statement that the allegations filed "are categorically false and part of a scheme to extort money from Mr. Black by threatening to destroy his reputation."

What to watch: The deadline to file a suit is November 2023, which is when most of the cases could wind up getting filed. That's what happened with the Child Victims Act, Christensen said.

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