(Bloomberg) -- A New York law that temporarily lifts the statute of limitations on civil sexual-abuse and harassment claims has sparked a flurry of activity just two weeks after taking effect — a warning sign for Wall Street banks and other employers that victims from decades earlier are on the hunt for justice.
Hundreds of alleged victims have sought legal advice in recent days and companies are calling outside attorneys to prepare for potential claims, according to interviews with a dozen lawyers from across the US. Lawsuits have already been filed against former President Donald Trump, comedian Bill Cosby and billionaire Leon Black over allegations they assaulted women decades ago, which their lawyers deny.
The claims are tied to the Adult Survivors Act, which took effect Nov. 24 and gives those making accusations of past assaults one year to seek financial compensation from alleged offenders and employers who may have harbored them, no matter how long ago the incident occurred. It aims to fill a gap left by 2019 legislation that extended New York’s statute of limitations on sex-abuse claims to 20 years from just one year, but not retroactively.
Not wasting time
“People aren’t wasting time,” said Zoe Salzman, who specializes in harassment cases and represented a woman in New York’s sexual harassment probe of former Governor Andrew Cuomo. “A lot of these cases involve people who came to us years ago looking for ways to hold their attackers accountable, but we had to tell them about the statute of limitations. Now they’re calling us back.”
Cuomo denies wrongdoing.
The New York law was a crowning achievement for activists who sought to reshape civil claims around sexual offenses in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and is the highest-profile and broadest effort among US states to address historical sexual-assault claims by adult victims, according to the interviews with lawyers. It also stands to have broader impact since New York is home to so many major banks and other large corporations.
Companies that have already been affected include Atlantic Records, which was sued by a former talent scout who claimed the label covered up a pattern of abuse by Ahmet Ertegun, its late longtime leader, from the early 1980s to early 1990s. And the suit filed against Cosby by five women Monday also named NBCUniversal Media, which aired The Cosby Show and A Different World, accusing the company of negligence for allegedly turning a blind eye to the star’s conduct.
NBCUniversal declined to comment on a legal matter. Warner Music Group, which owns Atlantic Records, said the allegations date back more than 40 years “to before WMG was a standalone company.”
“We are speaking with people who were there at the time, taking into consideration that many key individuals are deceased or into their 80s and 90s,” the company said in a statement.
Wall Street history
Wall Street employers in particular may be at risk because they have “deep pockets” that may make lawyers inclined to take those cases, said Elizabeth Geddes, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who helped convict R&B singer R Kelly for sex trafficking earlier this year. New York financial institutions, long dominated by men, have had a history of claims of misogyny and harassment, though the industry has sought to fix that image.
“There are institutions out there that have lots of money that sometimes turned a blind eye to known bad actors, and those institutions — including banks — are potentially at risk here,” Geddes said.
Prominent plaintiffs’ attorney Gloria Allred said she’s already received calls from people with potential claims, including a woman who was “seriously sexually harassed” while working on Wall Street in the 1980s. Allred didn’t provide any further details but said she’s planning to file several lawsuits if that and other claims she is handling aren’t resolved through out-of-court settlements.
Such behind-the-scenes mediation and settlements will be the most typical course of action, said Allred and Natasha Romagnoli, who represents companies in sexual-abuse disputes.
“In some ways the plaintiffs’ firms have the most leverage over a company before they actually file the lawsuit because companies want to keep the claims under wraps,” Romagnoli said.
Read More: Wall Street’s Silencing of Sexual Harassment Cut Back by New Law
Nondisclosure agreements frequently signed by workers as part of their hiring process have long been used to prevent accusers from going public with their allegations. But President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed into law the Speak Out Act, which invalidates such agreements in sex-abuse cases, giving accusers the upper hand just as the New York law is taking effect.
Lawyers point to New York’s landmark Child Victims Act of 2019 — which temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on claims by people of any age who said they were abused as minors — for an idea of how the adult version will play out. That law resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and judgments against religious institutions and other organizations where abuse occurred, Romagnoli said. It’s too soon to say how much the Adult Survivors Act will cost companies, she said.
Few states have passed laws giving adult survivors a window to sue over alleged past abuse. New Jersey included a provision for adults in a 2019 law geared to child victims, but lawyers say it didn’t get as much attention as New York’s law because the focus was on minors. California also passed a landmark law lifting the statute of limitations for adults but the window covered alleged incidents only as far back as 2009.
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, whose district includes parts of lower and midtown Manhattan, helped pass the law. He said the accusers he spoke with never mentioned monetary damages and the real focus of their efforts has been seeking justice and holding people and institutions accountable — including the financial institutions in his district.
“The reckoning is not about fleecing any individual or company,” he said. “It’s about shining a light on historic abuses in some of these workplaces that have occurred for decades.”
Lawyers for Trump and Black have argued the lawsuits are an abuse of the court system. Jennifer Bonjean, who represents Cosby in the new civil suit, said laws that lift the statute of limitations “set a dangerous precedent as they allow accusers to bring uncorroborated, stale claims that are difficult to defend in this #Metoo climate.”
In the Atlantic Records case, Ertegun’s widow, 96-year-old style icon Mica Ertegun, is bearing the brunt of the claims as the head of her late husband’s estate. Her lawyer Rick Werder noted his client’s advanced age and said they haven’t yet seen the complaint.
“Any claim against Mrs. Ertegun is meritless and will be vigorously defended on her behalf,” said Werder, of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.
Cases that go to trial will hinge on the strength of the accuser’s testimony. But plaintiffs’ lawyers will prioritize cases that can be backed up by other evidence, including employment records and documents that place the claimant and the alleged abuser in the same place at the same time, as well as medical records if a victim sought professional help. Plaintiffs may also have witnesses such as friends or family members whom they may have confided in.
Beyond corporate employers, New York’s prisons may also face a wave of litigation because of the prevalence of abuse by staff in facilities where inmates are under the total control of their attackers, said Anna Kull, a lawyer who is working with hundreds of inmates on claims. She has already filed 10 lawsuits.
“This has opened the floodgates,” she said. “There are so many survivors, and they’re all coming forward now because of the window. They’re feeling empowered.”
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