Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex
Argued: October 8, 2015.
Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on January 30, 2012.
The case was heard by Thomas R. Murtagh, J., on a motion for judgment on the pleadings.
After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court granted leave to obtain further appellate review.
Carmen L. Durso ( Mark F. Itzkowitz with him) for the plaintiff.
Sylvia Katsenes for the defendant.
Marci A. Hamilton, of Pennsylvania, & Erin K. Olson, for National Center for Victims of Crime & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.
Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.
Until June, 2014, civil actions alleging sexual abuse of a minor, which may be brought pursuant to G. L. c. 260, § 4C (§ 4C), were governed by a three-year statute of limitations. G. L. c. 260, § 4C, as amended through St. 2011, c. 178, § 19. Section 4C was amended effective June 26, 2014, to extend the limitations period from three years to thirty-five years; the amending act contained a retroactivity provision, and an emergency preamble. St. 2014, c. 145, § § 5, 8. The plaintiff, Rosanne Sliney, filed an action in 2012 alleging that her uncle, the defendant Domenic A. Previte, Jr., had sexually abused her between 1968 and 1977, when she was a child. Judgment entered in the Superior Court in June, 2012, dismissing the complaint on statute of limitations grounds. We consider here two questions: whether, in the circumstances presented, § 4C's extended statute of limitations applies to the plaintiff's case, and, if so, whether the retroactive application is constitutional. We answer both questions yes and, as a consequence, vacate the Superior Court judgment.
1. Factual background.
In the Superior Court, this case was decided on Previte's motion for judgment on the pleadings. See Mass. R. Civ. P. 12 (c), 365 Mass. 754 (1974). We recite here the facts alleged in Sliney's complaint and for purposes of this appeal we assume the facts to be true. Jarosz v. Palmer, 436 Mass. 526, 529-530, 766 N.E.2d 482 (2002) (motion for judgment on pleadings filed by defendant is essentially motion to dismiss). From the time she was five years old in 1968 until she was fourteen years old in 1977, Sliney was sexually abused many times by Previte, her uncle. She required psychiatric treatment to deal with issues related to the abuse, and was hospitalized on numerous occasions for the same reason, beginning when she was approximately twenty-four years old.
Sliney began to recall some of the abuse by Previte beginning in 1988, and confided in her relatives. Thereafter, Previte wrote a letter of apology to Sliney and asked for her forgiveness. Sliney
was under family pressure to forgive Previte, and in March of 1991, Sliney was coerced into signing a document that purportedly released Previte from all claims in exchange for a payment of $26,500; Sliney's mental state was such at the time that she did not understand the nature of this document. Thereafter, she continued to require mental health hospitalizations. At some point in 2011, Sliney began to recall new, different memories that Previte, in addition to committing acts of sexual abuse himself, had forced her to engage in sexual acts with other men who were unknown to her.
On January 30, 2012, Sliney filed this action in the Superior Court. The complaint named Previte and Michael Moe Nos. 1-10 as defendants and alleged the facts just summarized. Previte answered the complaint and filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings that sought dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that (1) the statute of limitations had already run before Sliney filed her complaint, and (2) the release executed by Sliney in 1991 foreclosed her from raising her claims against Previte. In response, Sliney argued in part that the abuse she suffered as a result of being forced by Previte to engage in sexual activities with other men was distinct from the acts of sexual abuse committed directly by Previte and she reasonably could not have discovered that abuse until 2011 -- i.e., within the limitations period of three years. She also contended that the release she signed was invalid. In June, 2012, a judge in the Superior Court allowed Previte's motion and entered judgment dismissing the complaint against him on the basis that the action was filed after the three-year statute of limitations that had been prescribed by § 4C had expired. The motion judge concluded that Sliney knew of the sexual abuse by Previte as of 1988, and the fact that she remembered additional incidents did not ...