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Decades-old child abuse claim may prompt review of Md. law

(iStock/aluxum)

(iStock/aluxum)

Allegations of childhood sexual abuse from more than 30 years ago may result in Maryland’s top court reviewing its 1996 decision finding no legal significance between a repressed memory of a traumatic event and mere forgetfulness.

The Court of Appeals’ controversial ruling in Doe v. Maskell has foreclosed claims of childhood sexual abuse by adults who allege they had repressed their memory of the brutality until after the time for filing suit had passed. Current law provides that such lawsuits must be brought before the alleged victim reaches age 25.

On Thursday, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals cited Maskell in declining to revive claims of childhood sexual abuse brought by Leslie Altstatt’s three daughters, who say they did not recall until 2014 their father having brutalized them between 1964 and 1984.

An attorney for the daughters said Friday that they have yet to decide whether to appeal that decision to the high court.

But the lawyer, Adam L. Van Grack, said a compelling argument can be made that Maskell is “outdated” because in the past 20 years the scientific community has come to recognize that repressing painful memories, such as childhood sexual assault, is distinct from forgetfulness and thus the time limit for filing suit should be put on hold until the memory is recalled.

The Court of Special Appeals, while receptive to that argument, said it was unable to accept it because the intermediate court remains bound by the high court’s decision.

“It may very well be that the Court of Appeals ultimately determines that it would be appropriate to reconsider its holding in Maskell,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote in the Court of Special Appeals’ reported 3-0 decision.

“Nevertheless, that determination is solely within the province of the Court of Appeals,” Berger added. “We do not intend to minimize the seriousness of the allegations in the present case. Cases involving claims of childhood sexual abuse are among the most disturbing encountered by this court, and we recognize that victims of childhood sexual abuse often suffer lifelong consequences.”

Van Grack said the Court of Special Appeals judges “had their hands tied’ by the Maskell decision.

However, the three-judge panel was “clearly … signaling” to the Court of Appeals that it should reconsider its 20-year-old ruling in light of the current science regarding repressed memories, or “dissociative amnesia” as it is now called, added Van Grack, of Longman & Van Grack LLC in Bethesda.

The father’s lawyer, Jennifer L. Mayer, praised the Court of Special Appeals for upholding the law and the dismissal of the abuse claims as having been filed too late.

“The statute of limitations exists for good reason,” said Mayer, of Houlon, Berman, Finci, Levenstein, Skok & Sandler LLC in Greenbelt. People should not be required “to defend against claims that arose a lifetime ago,” she added.

The daughters say that the repressed memories came back when one of them was hospitalized in an inpatient trauma disorders unit in January 2014. In December 2014, they filed suit against their father in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

That lawsuit was dismissed as barred by the statute of limitations that existed at the time of the alleged abuse. That statute required childhood sexual abuse claims to be filed by age 21.

The daughters then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals.

Chief Judge Peter B. Krauser and Judge Timothy E. Meredith joined Berger’s opinion in Robin Altstatt Scarborough et al. v. Leslie B. Altstatt, No. 1248 September Term 2015.