California recently opened the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. For the next three years, beginning on January 1, 2020, adults of any age will be able to bring lawsuits for alleged childhood sexual abuse—regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred.
This temporary lift on the statute of limitations is expected to clear the way for a wave of sexual abuse claims. For many, discussing sexual abuse is difficult, and perhaps something survivors have not done in years, if ever. When considering whether or not to embark on such a journey, many may wonder what privacy rights they may be giving up, and what they have to tell friends and family about their abuse and lawsuit.
[profileleft][/profileleft]California has long been a progressive state when it comes to the privacy rights of sexual abuse survivors. Persons bringing suit in Court against their abuser, church, or responsible organizations are afforded special privacy protections aimed at reducing Defendants’ ability to harass, intimidate, or discourage survivors from coming forward. However, this right to privacy is not absolute, and an attorney will need to protect an individual’s rights when a Court is deciding what aspects of a persons’ private life are discoverable in a lawsuit.
Do I have to Disclose My Name in a Lawsuit for Sexual Abuse, Sexual Assault, or Childhood Sexual Abuse?
Not always. California allows some plaintiffs to file a lawsuit as an anonymous Plaintiff. This means that the official Complaint will identify the plaintiff as “John Doe”, “Jane Doe”, or simply a person’s initials (i.e. “M.L.”) to preserve their privacy. This is an important privacy protection because Complaints are considered public documents.
Allowing anonymous or semi-anonymous filing is a narrow exception to the California Code of Civil Procedure which otherwise states that “every action must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest.” (Cal. Code Civ. Pro §367.) Persons bringing lawsuits as minors are always permitted to remain anonymous. But what about an adult who is bringing a lawsuit about abuse that happened when they were a child? In those instances, it is up to the court to determine if this exception will be allowed. Many Courts have allowed survivors of childhood sexual abuse to remain anonymous in their complaints, but it is not guaranteed.
However, even if you are able to file a lawsuit under a fictitious name, you will still be required to reveal your identity to the persons or entities you have named as Defendants. This means the Defendants will know you are the one bringing the lawsuit, and will be able to investigate or challenge any allegations you bring in the lawsuit.
Do I Have to Tell My Family and Friends About My Sexual Abuse Lawsuit?
No, but it is possible they will become aware of the lawsuit. Other than serving the official Complaint on the named defendants in the lawsuit, California does not require you to put anyone else on notice of your lawsuit. However, it is possible that friends and family may learn about the lawsuit and allegations contained therein.
In the course of a lawsuit, you will be required to disclose the names of anyone who is a witness. You may want to call on these witnesses yourself to help prove your case to a jury. Even if you do not intend to call the witnesses yourself, Defendants may still be able to contact these witnesses.
For example, a plaintiff in a childhood sexual abuse case may have to disclose all the people they told about the abuse while it was ongoing. This might include a childhood friend that Plaintiff once confided in, but who Plaintiff has not been in contact with in years. The Plaintiff does not know where the friend is located, and does not intend to call them as a witness at trial. The Defendant may still be able to track down this witness and ask them questions, including whether they recall being told by the Plaintiff about the abuse.
Witnesses to your mental state can also be brought into the lawsuit, even if they were not told about the abuse. This can happen if a spouse, friend, or family member has knowledge of how the abused affected you, even if they were not present or told about it.
Will Defendant Be Able to Ask Me Questions About My Sex Life?
Most likely not. California Code of Civil Procedure § 2017.220 states that in a lawsuit involving sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual battery, defendants are not allowed to ask any questions regarding “plaintiff’s sexual conduct with individuals other than the alleged perpetrator” without the court specifically granting them permission to do so. This means that if the Defendant wants to even ask questions about sexual conduct, they have to make the case to the court that there is good cause justifying that line of questioning. If a Defendant makes the request, and the Court finds that no good cause exists, the Defendant can be sanctioned for even raising the issue.
Courts are further not easily inclined to allow any questions about sexual conduct to come into a sexual abuse lawsuit. Evidence Code §1106 states that any evidence of a plaintiff s sexual conduct is “not admissible by the defendant to prove the absence of injury.” This means defendants are not allowed to argue that your sexual experiences before or after the abuse reduced or affected the level of emotional distress suffered from the abuse. With these statutes in place, Courts have found that absent extraordinary circumstances, no discovery regarding a plaintiff’s sexual conduct is permissible.
What Can I Do to Protect My Privacy Rights if I Choose to Bring a Sexual Abuse Claim?
The most important step is to work with attorneys you trust and who understand your privacy concerns. Attorneys can work to establish a Protective Order in your case which can limit the types of information disclosed in the matter, dictate who is allowed to view any exchanged information, determine how confidential or private materials are handled, and ensure that sensitive materials are destroyed after the lawsuit concludes. Your Attorneys will be with you at all appearances to ensure you are only asked appropriate questions, and can petition the court for emergency relief if they believe Defendant’s conduct is improper or aimed at embarrassing or intimidating you.
If you are considering bringing a lawsuit for sexual abuse, the Attorneys at Gomez Trial Attorneys have extensive experience litigating these types of sensitive cases, and protecting their clients’ privacy with dignity through the process. Contact Gomez Trial Attorneys today to schedule a free initial consultation.