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Survivor ‘look-back’ law broadens Trump sex abuse quagmire

The former president now faces a sexual battery claim that lay dormant for years under a statute of limitations that New York state has put on hold for the next 12 months.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Accused of raping a magazine columnist in a department store dressing room, Donald Trump could face greater civil penalties in his protracted fight with the writer E. Jean Carroll under a newly minted law aimed at holding sexual abusers accountable for long-ago crimes.

Carroll's new lawsuit under the Adult Survivors Act compounds the 78-year-old's pending federal defamation lawsuit against the 76-year-old former president. Attorneys who specialize in sex-abuse cases say the law that took effect this past Thursday, Thanksgiving, can bridge the gap for those who were not ready to come forward immediately after an assault occurred. 

A once popular advice columnist, Carroll has claimed for years that Trump raped her at Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-1990s. She says the real estate mogul recognized her as a fellow public figure while shopping at the iconic Manhattan department store and asked for her input on a gift he was buying. After some “playful banter,” the two moved toward the dressing room where she says Trump forced himself upon her. 

Laying bare the lasting damage of that day bare, Carroll's latest filing explains: “Carroll has not been able to sustain a romantic relationship since the day Trump raped her. Nor has she engaged in sex with anyone since that time. In Carroll’s own words the ‘music had stopped’ and the ‘light had gone out’ after Trump attacked her at Bergdorf’s.”

Carroll detailed the account in her 2019 book “What Do We Need Men For?” and published an excerpt in New York Magazine. Trump denied the allegation and says he never met Carroll, despite a photograph showing the two of them at a social event.

“I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type,” Trump said on June 24, 2019, half way into his single-term presidency. “Number two, it never happened. It never happened.”  

Those words were the basis for the ongoing defamation lawsuit Carroll brought against Trump in November 2019. The latest filing enhances her potential remedies. 

“The big question is damages,” attorney Susan Crumiller, who specializes in discrimination and harassment in employment and health care, told Courthouse News. 

“Each claim comes with its own damages associated with a claim. So when you bring a defamation case, you are basically suing for the damages that you suffered as a result of the defamation itself. … Whereas now she can assert claims for the harm she suffered as a result of the actual assault.” 

Crumiller said called the newly available course of action from the Adult Survivors Act the more appropriate one. 

“The defamation case is an example of creative lawyering,” she said. “The optimal claims weren't there. And now they are.”

This 1987 photograph of E. Jean Carroll and Donald Trump appears in Carroll's civil defamation suit against Trump to rebuff his claims that he could not have raped her because he never met her. (Image via Courthouse News)

Carroll's new lawsuit in the Southern District of New York alleges one battery count and one new defamation count. 

For now, her first 2019 lawsuit is held up by a procedural dispute after Trump argued that the United States Department of Justice should stand in as the defendant, invoking the Westfall Act, which is typically used for cases like car collisions involving a federal government employee. The Second Circuit determined that the act does apply to the president but left it to the D.C. Court of Appeals to determine whether Trump's "not-my-type" comments occurred while Trump was doing his job. 

Carroll’s attorneys have signaled that the cases should be consolidated — given the acknowledgement by U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan that doing so would share a substantial amount of the same discovery materials, each based on whether the alleged assault occurred. The new lawsuit was referred to Kaplan on Monday with a docket note that the two are “possibly related.”

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Filed just after midnight on Friday, Carroll's new suit is among the first to take advantage of the Empire State's new one-year "look-back window" for survivors of abuse to file lawsuits for claims otherwise barred by the statute of limitations. The model is similar to New York’s Child Victims Act, which took effect for one year in 2020 and resulted in some 9,200 lawsuits.  

"As we have been saying since last summer when the Adult Survivors Act was passed, E. Jean Carroll intends to hold Donald Trump accountable not only for defaming her, but also for sexually assaulting her, which he did years ago in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman,” Carroll’s attorney Robbie Kaplan said in an email to Courthouse News. 

Trump’s attorney Alina Habba called the allegation meritless. 

“While I respect and admire individuals that come forward, this case is unfortunately an abuse of the purpose of this Act which creates a terrible precedent and runs the risk of delegitimizing the credibility of actual victims,” Habba said her own email. 

More than two dozen women have publicly accused Trump of assault, harassment, nonconsensual kissing and groping, or various other sexual misconduct. Carroll says in her lawsuit that, as “a throng of women came forward and accused Trump of sexual assault, only to be denigrated and then brushed aside,” she chose to publish her story in her book rather than go through a media outlet. 

Carroll was the second person to publicly accuse Trump of rape. His ex-wife Ivana Trump, who died in July at age 73, said in a sworn deposition during divorce proceedings that Trump raped her in 1989 while the two were still married. She later reached a settlement with the future president and walked back the accusation, saying Donald had “behaved very differently toward me than he had during our marriage" but that he had not raped her.

“As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent,” Ivana Trump said in a statement at the time. "I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.”

Former President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, stand outside St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church after the funeral of Ivana Trump in New York on July 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

Significance of the survivor lookback window

In her battery lawsuit, Carroll addressed why she initially “chose silence” after Trump raped her. 

“Carroll knew then that sexual assault was pervasive. She also knew that men have been assaulting women and getting away with it since before she was born. And she knew that while a woman who accused any man of rape was rarely believed, a woman who accused a rich, famous, violent man of rape would probably lose everything,” the lawsuit states. 

“She therefore reasonably concluded that if she accused Donald Trump of rape he would bury her in threats and lawsuits, and she would probably lose her reputation, not to mention everything she had worked for and achieved.”

Carroll says she told two friends about the assault right away; one of them “begged” her to press charges, the other suggested she keep it to herself. 

“Tell no one. Forget it! He has two hundred lawyers. He’ll bury you,” Carol Martin, a fellow journalist and friend of Carroll's, told her at the time, according to Carroll's lawsuit. 

Carroll says she heeded Martin's words, despite for years writing in her own advice column that readers should confront their abusers and report rapists to the police. 

It is common, Crumiller explained, for survivors to feel unprepared to take action immediately following an assault. 

“It can take decades, or a lifetime, to process sexual trauma — to accept what happened, even to name what happened and recognize what happened — to shed sort of the feelings of guilt and self-blame that many survivors experience,” Crumiller said. 

Crumiller and attorney Carrie Goldberg are partnering on the Survivors Law Project, created to handle a slew of lawsuits under the Adult Survivors Act. Each lawyer has worked on abuse cases at their individual firms, Crumiller PC and C.A. Goldberg PLLC. Both women are survivors themselves, as well as longtime friends. 

“It's very common," Crumiller explained, "for people to think, ‘Oh, if she was raped, then why did she call him the next day?’ Or, ‘If he raped her, then why did she go back and have consensual sex with him later?’ To people who understand the dynamics, we know that’s completely normal. But I think the general education really just still isn't there."

Following the abundance of cases filed under the Child Victims Act, she said New York courts are likely to be better prepared to handle assault cases that happened years ago.

"I think that judges are learning a lot," Crumiller continued. "And it makes a difference in how they handle these cases. I think that survivors will continue to get more and more of a fair shake — more and more have a fair understanding — as these actions continue to be brought.”

Separate from the Trump-Carroll litigation, the billionaire Leon Black was sued under the Adult Survivors Act on Monday by a woman who says she was trafficked by the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

Crumiller predicts that the law will be a watershed moment for people who have experienced abuse but have been plagued by misconceptions and self-doubt.

“It's the difference between being able to bring someone to justice and living out the rest of your life just thinking they got away with it,” Crumiller said. “It's the difference between justice and no justice.”

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