Former President Donald Trump, actor Bill Cosby, and gynecologist Robert Hadden are forever linked by a one-time law that allowed sexual assault survivors to get justice against some of the world’s most powerful men.
The New York Adult Survivors Act (ASA), which expires at midnight on Thursday, is unique. It has provided survivors a one-year window to pursue civil litigation regardless of when the abuse occurred, meaning incidents from decades ago finally came to light.
Over 2,500 cases have been filed under the ASA, court data sent to The Independent shows. Survivors have sued some of the state’s most powerful men, from politicians, including NYC Mayor Eric Adams and Trump, to major players in entertainment, such as Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Axl Rose, P Diddy, and photographer Terry Richardson. These suits have also brought new scrutiny to major institutions, like New York hospitals and prisons, where hundreds of women say they were assaulted while under care.
Nearly every industry has been touched by the ASA, highlighting the shocking prevalence of sexual violence that has existed, but never been previously prosecuted. As the law expires at midnight on Thanksgiving, the full impact of the year-long period is becoming clearer, with politicians, advocates and lawyers pushing for it to be extended.
The ‘empowering’ impact of the ASA
The law has undeniably helped many survivors seek justice.
Michael Polenberg, the vice president of government affairs for the victims services nonprofit Safe Horizon, said the ASA has “helped shine a light on the prevalence of sexual abuse in our state and in our country.” He told The Independent that the ASA has also “reinforced a message that it can take survivors many years to come forward.”
Michael Lamonsoff, a lawyer who has represented many survivors who filed under the ASA, remarked that this law can provide “empowerment” for survivors — particularly for those who were previously incarcerated.
Of the thousands of cases that were filed under the ASA, nearly 500 took on the city’s Department of Corrections. Many female former inmates have accused male correctional officers of abusing them while they were incarcerated. Some also became pregnant, suits say.
Mr Lamonsoff outlined what the process must have looked like for prisoners who were abused by correctional officers: “Were they really going to hire a lawyer? Were they really going to assert their rights after being sexually assaulted?”
The attorney also pointed out that the conversations and understanding around sexual assault were drastically different decades ago, when many of these survivors were reportedly assaulted. He added that formerly incarcerated survivors “had nothing they could do to protect themselves or advocate for themselves” at the time, “so this act is a great act.”
‘A year is not enough’
Although the ASA has given many survivors a renewed chance to seek justice, some have complained that the one-year period isn’t enough for many to come forward.
The ASA is a “noble act,” Mr Lamonsoff said, but his “biggest criticism” of the law is that it is too short. The ASA might be a one-time opportunity for survivors to come forward, unless, Mr Lamonsoff explained, “we have a push to get it re-enacted” or possibly extended.
“A lot of the survivors are going to be left outside that window because they need time to process,” Mr Lamonsoff said. “They need time to understand its underpinnings and how it will help affect their lives if they do come forward.”
Mr Lamonsoff said he is “aggressively asking for a continuation” of the ASA.
Will Rivera, the interim executive director of New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NYSCASA), also supported an extension of the ASA.
He said that extending the measure “would allow individuals to have the opportunity to process their trauma,” get support before they move forward, and can make an “informed decision” before potentially pursuing years of lengthy litigation that would require rehashing traumatic events.
One of the measure’s sponsors, Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal, told The Independent that she was in support of extending the ASA. Ms Rosenthal said there are some survivors who “might not have processed the trauma” by the time of the deadline. Others, she said, might be victim blaming and haven’t yet realized “they were forced into something.” Therefore, it hasn’t “click[ed] that they were eligible” to file under the ASA.
Can the window be extended?
In brief, it seems possible.
Assemblywoman Rosenthal said that she is hoping to introduce an extension “shortly” when the legislature is back in session in January, when it will be “hopefully” taken up.
This means there won’t be a seamless transition from when the window ends to its next start date, if it happens at all.
Given the high profile nature of the suits that have largely been covered by the media, Mr Lamonsoff said that survivors can “see that people really care.” This could perhaps inspire even more survivors to come forward if the law is extended, she suggested.
The future of the ASA remains uncertain, but the state can still keep empowering survivors whose statutes of limitations have not passed to come forward by demonstrating that justice can be served.
But one issue is how long victims have to wait for justice. Mr Lamonsoff said it “now takes seven to eight years” to get a sexual assault allegation to trial. For that reason, he said he is advocating for a special division in the state’s Supreme Court system for sexual assault victims to bring their cases in order to expedite the lengthy trial process. “We want to show some results to the survivors to empower them to make them feel something was done,” he said.
Life after the ASA
The ASA’s ripple effects on the New York court system are still unclear — specifically when it comes to the statute of limitations for sex crimes.
Ms Rosenthal said that she thinks the statute of limitations is “an antiquated notion” that “doesn’t take into account the emotional aspect” of survivors. However, more optimistically, she said over time, state “legislators have been exposed to the horrors” of sexual violence and the “need for such” measures to come to pass.
In 2006, New York eliminated the statute of limitations for first-degree rape. Years later, in 2019, the state passed a law that extended the statute of limitations from five years to 20 years for certain sex crimes.
That same year, the state enacted the Child Victims Act, which allowed those abused as children to bring civil litigation against their alleged assailants, serving as the precursor to the ASA.
Research will come from the ASA to illuminate the next steps forward, Mr Rivera said. He said that research will be “helpful” as advocacy groups, lawyers and legislators try “to move forward and really create a positive change to the act.”
He added, “I think it’s an opportunity for New York to really be a model for the nation.”
Mr Polenberg summarised the legal evolution as a years-long process “to look at the experiences of survivors of sexual violence and to look at the laws and the books and to understand that more often than not, there’s a mismatch.”
The ASA has allowed thousands of people to sue their alleged abusers, but if what’s past is prologue, there are still many more survivors who have yet to tell their stories.