In W.S. v. Derek Hildreth (A-46-21/086633) (Decided January 18, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that child sexual abuse survivors who file a Child Sexual Abuse Act (CSAA) complaint against a public entity after December 1, 2019 — even if their cause of action accrued much earlier — are not required to file a TCA notice of claim before filing suit. In support of its decision, the court cited the “plain meaning” of N.J.S.A. 59:8-3(b).
Facts of W.S. v. Hildreth
W.S. alleged that defendant Derek Hildreth, a teacher at Myron L. Powell Elementary School, sexually assaulted him during the 1996-1997 school year when plaintiff was in sixth grade. Both parties agree that plaintiff’s claim accrued in 2016, when W.S. was about thirty years old. In January 2017, W.S. moved for leave to file a late notice of tort claim, but was denied.
On December 1, 2019, several amendments to the CSAA, Charitable Immunity Act (CIA), and Tort Claims Act (TCA) went into effect. The Legislature extended the statute of limitations for any injury resulting from certain offenses including child sexual abuse to “37 years after the minor reaches the age of majority, or within seven years from the date of reasonable discovery of the injury . . . , whichever date is later,” and it explicitly made the amendment retroactive. Additionally, N.J.S.A. 59:8-3(b) was amended to provide that the “procedural requirements” of the TCA “shall not apply to an action at law for an injury resulting” from sexual abuse. The Legislature also narrowed the scope of substantive immunity under the TCA to exclude “an action at law for damages” resulting from sexual abuse under certain circumstances and specified that the new statute of limitations would apply to any such action at law against a public entity that had not been finally adjudicated as of December 1, 2019.
Approximately one month after the amendments went into effect, W.S. filed suit against Hildreth, the Lawrence Township School District, and others, bringing claims under the CSAA and Law Against Discrimination, as well as numerous common law claims. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to file a notice of claim within ninety days of the claim’s accrual as required by N.J.S.A. 59:8-8. The motion judge denied the motion, finding that the amended TCA “applies to causes of action that were not finally adjudicated as of December 1, 2019” and that “plaintiff’s cause of action was not finally adjudicated as of” that date because it was denied without prejudice.
The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that plaintiff’s complaint was filed after the amendments became effective and was therefore “subject to the newly enacted N.J.S.A. 59:8-3(b), which specifically eliminated the need to file a notice of claim in advance of filing suit.” The appeals court further found that “plaintiff never filed ‘a cause of action’ in 2017” because a motion for leave to file a late notice of claim “does not amount to the commencement of ‘civil litigation.’”
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in W.S. v. Hildreth
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously affirmed. “We hold that the plain meaning of the relevant statutes dictates that child sexual abuse survivors who file a CSAA complaint against a public entity after December 1, 2019 — even if their cause of action accrued much earlier — need not file a TCA notice of claim before filing suit,” the court wrote.
The New Jersey Supreme Court first determined that W.S.’s 2017 motion for leave to file a late notice of claim did not commence a civil action and the trial court’s dismissal of the motion without prejudice did not constitute a “final adjudicat[ion]” of the case within the meaning of the 2019 amendments. In support, the court cited that a notice of claim under the TCA does not commence civil litigation. Moreover, “[a] motion for permission to file a late notice of claim is even further removed from beginning a lawsuit.”
With regard to the W.S.’s January 2020 complaint, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the motion judge and the Appellate Division correctly applied the law in effect at that time in denying defendants’ motion to dismiss, and, pursuant to the law in effect at the time W.S. filed his complaint, no notice of claim was required. “Applying the law in effect at the time a complaint is filed — even when that law changed the requirements for filing a complaint — is not applying a statute retroactively; it is applying a statute prospectively to cases filed after its effective date,” the court explained.
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to reject the argument that what matters for purposes of N.J.S.A. 59:8- 3(b) is when a cause of action accrued, noting that the language of the statute indicates otherwise. The Court further found that none of the other statutes cited by the defendants define the term “action at law” to mean when a cause of action accrues rather than when a complaint is filed in court. Finally, the New Jersey Supreme Court emphasized that the defendants’ interpretation would lead to absurd results. “[I]n defendants’ view, only those subjected to sexual abuse by a public entity or employee after December 1, 2019, or whose cause of action for such abuse accrued after December 1, 2019, would be able to pursue justice in court,” the court wrote. “For everyone else, the Legislature would have intentionally resuscitated child sexual abuse claims against public entities or employees that accrued many years before by retroactively extending the statute of limitations until the victim reached the age of fifty-five through N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2a(a)(1), only for the claim to be immediately dismissed because the victim did not file a notice of claim within ninety days of the cause of action originally accruing. That would be senseless.”