Bill Removing Statute of Limitations in Civil Misconduct Claims Passes House

Bill gives sex assault survivors time to process without losing chance to pursue those accountable

The Colorado House of Representatives last week gave initial approval to a bipartisan bill that aims to remove the statute of limitations on civil claims of sexual misconduct. The bill was sponsored by Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet (D) and Matt Soper (R) and Sens. Julie Gonzales (D) and Don Coram (R).

Despite the budgetary struggles blocking many bills from passage this session, the total vote for the bill, House Bill 1296, in the House stood at 60-1 with four excused. Democrat Rep. Adrienne Benavidez was the single vote against the bill.

“The effects of trauma have no expiration date, and neither should the timeline for holding a perpetrator of sexual violence accountable,” Michaelson Jenet said in a statement. She added that the legislation would allow survivors to “take time to heal without losing the opportunity to seek justice through the courts.”

Under the existing law, the statute of limitations for bringing a civil claim based on sexual assault or offense against a child is six years, according to The Colorado General Assembly website. However, the statute is “tolled” in cases where the victim is under disability or in a “special relationship” to the perpetrator said assault.

The bill further eliminates a restriction in which, under existing law, a plaintiff bringing a civil action alleging sexual misconduct at or over 15 years after the plaintiff turns 18 is limited to recovering “only certain damages,” according to the assembly site.

The statute of limitations on bringing a civil claim based on sexual misconduct is removed by the bill, according to a press release from House Democrats. The bill defines sexual misconduct to include all current sexual offenses against children, and “criminal behavior of a sexual nature” which includes requests for sexual favors “accompanied” by threats, violence or coercion.

Further, the bill allows claims from circumstances related to sexual misconduct to be brought against a person or entity that isn’t the perpetrator of the sexual misconduct, according to the release.

House Bill 1296 also removes the “provision that a plaintiff who is a victim of a series of sexual assaults does not need to establish which act in the series caused the plaintiff’s injuries,” according to the site. In addition, the bill also eliminates a restriction in existing law in which a victim who is under disability or in a special relationship with the perpetrator of assault could not bring an action against a deceased or incapacitated defendant.

The bill would be effective for claims arising on or after Jan. 1, 2021, according to the release. However, it “allows for those victims for whom the current statute of limitations has not yet run to bring a claim based on the provisions of this law.” The

state constitution was interpreted to guarantee “vested rights” in relation to the statues of limitations but not to allow the legislature to make “retroactive changes to these limitations,” according to the release.

The bill has been in the works for some time, and a similar bill was attempted in 2006, Michaelson Jenet said. That bill was hung up by the “loo- back window,” which would allow for those whose statute of limitations had run to still have recourse through a window that says the statute of limitations applies, she added.

Under Colorado constitutional law, it is nearly impossible to have a legislative pathway to create a look-back window, Michaelson Jenet said. In order to do that, a court challenge would be required. 

“And sometimes, our laws are taken to court, and as a result of the ruling new laws are made, but what has happened in this situation is because of that the statute of limitations wasn’t eliminated at a long, long time ago,” she said.

So, those whose statutes would have been eliminated have not been, and “our law is written, if your statute has not run out, you are eligible to now try in a civil court,” she said.

Opposition has come mainly from two sides, Michaelson Jenet said. One comes from survivors whose statute of limitations has run out, who want that look-back window, “and say that the bill just isn’t good enough without it,” she added.

“My heart aches. … I can empathize with their desire for justice of any sort, and, unfortunately, if we were to continue that particular battle right now, we’d run the risk of what happened … where we lose the bill basically on its merits,” she said, and that in turn would continue the wait for other people whose “clock is ticking.”

The second side of opposition come from several organizations who were making sure they were not specifically being targeted, she said. “And we were not, that was not the intent of this bill.” Michaelson Jenet mentioned that the Attorney General’s Office has been working to get reparations paid for individuals from the Catholic Church “and we agreed to let that program to continue to run.”

The Colorado Catholic Council, a group of Catholic bishops who speak on public policy issues, is opposed to the passing of House Bill 1296, according to its website. At the publishing this article, the council did not respond to requests for comment.

While there has been pushback and formal opposition from the Catholic Church, Michaelson Jenet said her interactions with the church have been respectful. She added she often deals with legislation touching on topics that deal with mental health, sexual assault and children. 

Often, there are people who are “passionately” on the flip side of an issue, “I will say that while the church is passionately on the other side of this issue … they were incredibly respectful.”

For Michaelson Jenet, she believes the legacy of the bill, if passed, would be “that victims of sexual assault have stood up and together and fought for many years to change the laws to protect the rights of other victims — even when they couldn’t even protect or expand their own rights. 

I think that legacy is going to be huge.”

She said it is known that it can take long periods of time for young people to come to terms with the face they were assaulted, and find the strength to face their abuser. 

“And putting an arbitrary timeline on that does not reflect the processes of social and emotional development and that was a way the system really defended the abuser — and now we will change those tables and we will defend the victim,” she said.

— Avery Martinez

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