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Constitutional – Revival of Statute of Limitations – Facial Constitutional Challenge – Law of the Land Clause – Substantive Due Process

Scott Baughman//September 25, 2023//

Constitutional – Revival of Statute of Limitations – Facial Constitutional Challenge – Law of the Land Clause – Substantive Due Process

Scott Baughman//September 25, 2023//

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Defendant Gaston County Board of Education (the “Board”), which allegedly failed to protect the children in its care from a sexually abusive employee over a period of years, asked us to elevate a purely procedural statute of limitations defense into an inviolable constitutional right to be free from any civil liability for whatever misdeeds would be provable at trial. But affording all statutes of limitation that exceptional status is nowhere required by the constitutional text, nor is it mandated by the precedents of our Supreme Court. Because adopting the Board’s position would require us to strike down as unconstitutional a duly enacted statute of our General Assembly and disregard the narrowly crafted legislation designed to address a stunningly pressing problem affecting vulnerable children across the state, we decline to convert an affirmative defense into a free pass for those who engaged in and covered up atrocious child sexual abuse. 

We reverse the trial court and remand for further proceedings.

Plaintiffs were high school students and members of the East Gaston High School wrestling team at different times during the mid-1990s and early 2000s. All were coached by the individual defendant, who physically and sexually assaulted each of the boys during their pre-teen and/or teenage years. As a result of defendant’s illegal acts, plaintiffs suffered lasting psychological harm including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and/or substance abuse issues. The Board, defendant’s employer, received numerous complaints concerning his physical abuse of wrestlers under his tutelage. The Board, however, made no corrective action in response to these reports, electing instead to dismiss them after minimal investigation. Nor did the Board properly supervise defendant’s activities to protect plaintiffs from his abuse, including while in school facilities, travelling on school vehicles, and during overnight trips sanctioned by the Board. 

In 2014, defendant Goins was convicted of several offenses in connection with his sexual abuse of wrestlers on the East Gaston High School wrestling team. He was sentenced to a collective minimum term of 34.5 years for his crimes, and his conviction and sentences were upheld on appeal. Under the statute of limitations then in effect, Plaintiffs had three years from their eighteenth birthdays to bring civil suits against Defendants for the torts arising out of their sexual abuse. None of them brought civil suits against defendants for these torts within three years of their eighteenth birthdays, with the latest of the claims expiring in 2008. In 2019, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the SAFE Child Act unanimously, and it was signed by the Governor a week later. Among the many substantial statutory changes in the SAFE Child Act were revisions to the statute of limitations governing plaintiffs’ claims against defendants, including the “Revival Window” provision, which revives any otherwise time-barred civil action for child sexual abuse.

The superior court granted the Board’s motion to dismiss on the basis that the Revival Window facially violated due process protections provided by the Law of the Land Clause.

We hold that our Constitution does not per se prohibit such an act by our legislature and, regardless of the degree of scrutiny applicable, the Revival Window passes constitutional muster. We therefore reverse the trial court’s order dismissing plaintiffs’ complaint on the basis that the Revival Window is facially unconstitutional.

Reversed and remanded.

McKinney v. Goins (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-167-23, 63 pp.) (Allison Riggs, J.) Lanier Law Group, P.A., by Donald S. Higley, II, Robert O. Jenkins, and Lisa Lanier, for plaintiffs-appellants; Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Solicitor General Ryan Y. Park, Deputy Solicitor General Nicholas S. Brod, Solicitor General Fellow Zachary W. Ezor, and Special Deputy Attorney General Orlando L. Rodriguez, for Intervenor-Appellant State of North Carolina; Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard, L.L.P., by Elizabeth Lea  Troutman, Robert J. King, III, Jill R. Wilson, and Lindsey S. Barber, for defendant-appellee Gaston County Board of Education; no brief filed by defendant-appellee Gary Scott Goins; Fox Rothschild LLP, by Troy D. Shelton, for amici curiae Student Victims of  Sexual Abuse; Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP, by Joshua D. Davey and Mary K. Grob, for amicus curiae Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina. Wilder Pantazis Law Group, by Sam McGee, for Amicus Curiae CHILD USA; Tharrington Smith, L.L.P., by Deborah R. Stagner, for amicus curiae North Carolina School Boards Association; Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, by Lorin J. Lapidus, G. Gray Wilson, Denise M. Gunter, and Martin M. Warf, and Bell, Davis & Pitt, P.A., by Kevin G. Williams, for amicus curiae Young Men’s Christian Association of Northwest North Carolina d/b/a Kernersville Family YMCA. North Carolina Court of Appeals

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