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Court to Consider if Statute of Limitations Should Be Applied in Clergy Abuse Actions

Jan 3, 2006 | New York Law Journal

The Court of Appeals begins the new year today with back-to-back cases that could open widely, or slam shut, the window of opportunity for clergy abuse victims molested decades ago. At issue is whether Roman Catholic Church officials in Brooklyn and Syracuse should be equitably estopped from raising a statute of limitations defense in sex abuse cases dating back to 1960.

Zumpano v. Quinn, 1, and Estate of Boyle v. Smith, 2, the first two cases of the year, have the potential to expose diocesan authorities to actions that would otherwise be time barred. Clearly, the Court is intrigued by the issue, as evidenced by the fact that in Zumpano it initially denied leave and then reversed itself and agreed to hear the case, something it rarely does. It reconsidered its leave decision in Zumpano shortly after granting leave in Boyle. Both cases center on an argument that the wrongdoing of the defendant caused the plaintiff to miss the filing deadline.

Zumpano involves plaintiff John Zumpano and a priest, the Reverend James Quinn. Mr. Zumpano alleges he was sexually abused by Reverend Quinn between 1963 and 1970, when he was a student at Catholic schools in Utica. He sued the priest, the Syracuse diocese and its bishop in 2003. Mr. Zumpano acknowledged the statute of limitations had expired in 1976, but claimed the alleged abuse had rendered him insane as defined in CPLR 208 and that the time limit should be extended.

Supreme Court dismissed the action in a ruling affirmed by the Appellate Division, Fourth Department. The Fourth Department noted that there was no allegation that Reverend Quinn or the diocese had overtly committed any acts against Mr. Zumpano since 1970. A recent investigation by the Diocese of Syracuse failed to substantiate the allegations of abuse.

Boyle involves 42 plaintiffs who claim they were abused by 13 Diocese of Brooklyn priests between 1960 and 1985, when all of the plaintiffs were minors. To avoid the statute of limitations problem, the plaintiffs argued that the diocese should be equitably estopped from asserting such a defense because it perpetrated the abuse by refusing to report allegations to civil authorities, shifted known pedophiles to other parishes without warning, paid off complainants in return for silence and took other actions to hide its misconduct. However, Supreme Court dismissed and the Appellate Division, Second Department, agreed that the plaintiffs failed to exercise due diligence and neglected to inquire into pertinent facts until after the statute of limitations expired.

Zumpano and Boyle both seek clarification of a 1966 opinion, General Stencils v. Chiappa, 18 NY2d 125, that said a thief who conceals his thievery is equitably estopped from asserting a statute of limitations defense. It said a wrongdoer should not be permitted "to take refuge behind the shield of his own wrong."

The plaintiffs in the case scheduled for today rely on General Stencils and also CPLR §208, which entitles those who were insane at the time of the alleged incident, or rendered insane by it, to a 10-year toll of the statute of limitations. However, it is unclear when the clock begins running, especially in cases like Zumpano and Boyle, where the victims allege continuing mental illness or psychological and/or spiritual intimidation.

Frank Policello of Utica will argue for plaintiffs in Zumpano; Michael G. Dowd of Manhattan appears for the Boyle plaintiffs.

The Zumpano defendants are represented by Mark Shulte of Syracuse; Joseph M. Farrell of Conway, Farrell, Curtin & Kelly in Manhattan represents the Brooklyn diocese defendants.

Other Cases

Also this month, the Court will consider:

• The enforceability of a New York City statute, the Equal Benefits Law, which generally requires the city to do business only with contractors and property owners providing the same fringe benefits for their employees' domestic partners that they provide for their employees' spouses. Council of the City of New York v. Bloomberg, 6, will be argued tomorrow.

The dispute between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council stems from an anti-discrimination law enacted over the mayor's veto in 2004. Mr. Bloomberg has aggressively opposed the law, arguing that it would drastically restrict the city's ability to select low-cost bidders.

After a Supreme Court justice ordered the mayor to implement and enforce the law, the Appellate Division, First Department, held the Equal Benefits Law invalid in that it conflicts with the competitive bidding requirements under General Municipal Law.

• Whether two foreign attorneys were properly convicted of conspiracy and falsifying business records in a case that hinges on the statutory meaning of "business record."

People v. Bloomfield and Creggy, 13, centers around Harry J.F. Bloomfield, formerly a member of the Quebec Securities Commission, and Stuart Creggy, formerly a senior partner at London's Talbot Creggy.

The attorneys were implicated in a "pump and dump" scandal in which traders inflated the price of offshore shell companies before selling them. Investors allegedly lost $17 million, and Messrs. Bloomfield and Creggy were convicted of conspiracy and falsifying business records.

They were each fined $6,000 and sentenced to five years probation and 500 hours of community service by Acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. Fried.

In February, however, the First Department unanimously reversed the convictions and dismissed the underlying indictment.

The panel noted that §175.00[2] defines "business records" as those "kept or maintained by an enterprise." The First Department held that the records at issue did not fit that legal definition because they were "held" by a partner of Talbot Creggy and not by the management company.

The appeal will be argued Thursday by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Amyjane Rettew for the prosecution and Nathaniel Z. Marmur of Stillman & Friedman in Manhattan for Mr. Bloomfield and Joseph J. Aronica of Duane Morris in Washington, D.C., for Mr. Creggy.

• The scope of the federal government's power over arbitrations in a dispute involving the management of the Empire State Building and several other New York City landmarks.

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