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NY Lawmakers Grant 1-Year Grace Period For Sex Abuse Suits

By Dave Simpson · May 23, 2022, 9:21 PM EDT ·

The New York Assembly on Monday passed the Adult Survivors Act, which, if signed by the governor, would open up sexual assault and abuse litigation by creating a one-year window for adult survivors whose claims are otherwise time-barred.

Should the bill be signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, adult survivors of sexual assault and abuse will have a one-year window to bring a civil lawsuit against their abusers. It passed the Assembly by a vote of 140-3 after receiving unanimous support in the state Senate last month.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, a worker collective launched by seven former New York State legislative employees, lauded the bill's passage.

"Trauma-informed laws, like the ASA, recognize that for many survivors, there are often significant barriers before accountability and justice are an option; at times the survivor must first achieve the physical and economic safety to pursue a lawsuit," the group said in a news release. "This is on top of the years it can take to psychologically process the experiences and the resulting harms."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, both New York City Democrats, would create a one-year so-called lookback window, or grace period, in which victims of sex crimes who were over 18 when the crime occurred can pursue suits that would otherwise not be viable.

Hoylman introduced the bill in 2019 shortly after shepherding the Child Victims Act into law. That bill allowed people who were sexually abused as children to file a civil claim any time before the age of 55, up from the previous cutoff age of 23. The new law also provided a one-year lookback window during which people of any age could file a civil suit.

Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ceded the governorship to Hochul in August, two weeks after he announced his intent to resign following a bombshell report by Attorney General Letitia James that found that Cuomo had sexually harassed and groped women in state government for years. Cuomo denied the allegations despite stepping down.

Just days into the job, Hochul promised to end the "toxic" work environment of her predecessor and address the problem of workplace harassment in government, tweeting, "We can change the culture in Albany."

During his tenure, Cuomo signed a sweeping suite of laws that are among the nation's best at protecting victims of harassment and expanding their ability to litigate allegations in court, attorneys told Law360 in August.

In 2018 and 2019, soon after the #MeToo movement went viral, New York overhauled its legal standards in a broad effort to curtail harassment in the workplace and in other contexts.

Among the highlights, the state barred employers from insisting that nondisclosure clauses be included in agreements to settle sexual harassment claims. If employees want such a provision, which they can still seek, they have 21 days to consider the terms of the provision and seven days after that to revoke any confidentiality agreement they sign.

Other changes included extending the time victims have to file workplace sexual harassment claims under the New York State Human Rights Law from one to three years, and eliminating employers' ability to use the so-called Faragher-Ellerth defense against claims under the Human Rights Law. That defense shields employers that can show that they "exercised reasonable care" to prevent and address sexual harassment and that an accuser didn't take advantage of the processes the employer had in place for addressing misconduct.

But the change in New York law that lawyers on both sides of the employment bar say is the most consequential is the lowering of the legal standard harassment victims must meet to successfully prove a claim.

Before 2019, New York's standard matched the legal benchmark that exists under federal law — harassment had to be shown to be "severe and pervasive" for a claim to succeed. But New York state broadened its test to one in which victims need only show that misbehavior exceeds "petty slights or trivial inconveniences."

--Additional reporting by Frank G. Runyon, Vin Gurrieri, and Hailey Konnath. Editing by Karin Roberts.

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