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CEVENINI v. ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON

February 12, 1998

JAMES R. CEVENINI, RICHARD BRENNER, AND BERTELL L. NELSON, APPELLANTS,
V.
ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON, APPELLEE. ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON, APPELLANT, V. BERTELL L. NELSON, APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM SUPERIOR COURT, CURTIS E. von KANN, SUSAN R. WINFIELD AND GEOFFREY M. ALPRIN, JJ. [707 A2d Page 769]

Before Terry, King and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry, Associate Judge:

We consolidated these four appeals because they present common questions of law involving the potential liability of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington for the misconduct of one of its priests, Rev. Thomas Schaefer. Appellants Cevenini, Brenner, and Nelson each filed suit in 1995 *fn1 against the Archbishop of Washington, *fn1 seeking damages for the negligent hiring and supervision of Father Schaefer, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Archbishop filed separate motions to dismiss their complaints based on the statute of limitations and forum non conveniens. Judge von Kann dismissed Mr. Cevenini's complaint on statute of limitations grounds and denied as moot the forum non conveniens motion. With respect to Messrs. Brenner and Nelson, Judges Winfield and Alprin, respectively, denied the motions to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, but granted the motions to dismiss based on forum non conveniens. The three [707 A2d Page 770]

plaintiffs noted separate appeals, and — in Nelson's case only — the Archbishop noted a cross-appeal.

We hold that, as a matter of law, the statute of limitations expired before any of the three appellants filed suit. Accordingly, we affirm on that ground the dismissal of all three complaints, and thus do not reach the forum non conveniens issue as to any of the three appellants.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The facts of these cases are virtually identical. While they were teenagers, the three appellants served as altar boys and volunteers at the Church of St. John the Evangelist ("St. John's") in Clinton, Maryland. The church operates under the immediate control of the Archdiocese, which includes 143 parishes in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

In 1975 the Archdiocese assigned Father Schaefer to serve as pastor at St. John's, where he remained for seven years. Each appellant alleged in his complaint that during those years Father Schaefer sexually abused him on various occasions at the church. In 1982 Father Schaefer was reassigned to another parish, and in 1986 the Archdiocese removed him from the parish ministry altogether and assigned him to work as a chaplain in a nursing home. He was later directed to cease all ministerial functions. In February 1995 the Washington Post published a series of articles disclosing that the Archdiocese knew of Father Schaefer's pedophilic tendencies long before he assumed his pastoral duties at St. John's. These disclosures were attributed to and confirmed by Monsignor William Lori, the Chancellor of the Archdiocese. Each appellant alleged that it was not until the publication of these articles that he had reason to suspect independent wrongdoing by the Archdiocese with respect to the hiring and supervision of Father Schaefer.

Cevenini stated that he was sexually abused by Father Schaefer on two occasions in 1976 and 1977, when he was thirteen years old. His complaint alleged that, because of the trauma of the molestation, he repressed his memory of the abuse until 1991, when he began to recall what had happened. Nevertheless, he stated that he remained incapable of realizing the "impact" of Father Schaefer's abuse until 1993, when its effects were made clear to him through psychotherapy.

Brenner alleged that he was sexually abused by Father Schaefer on "many occasions" between 1981 and 1983, when he was thirteen or fourteen years old. Nelson alleged that he was sexually abused by Father Schaefer on "many occasions" between 1978 and 1982, when he was between thirteen and sixteen years old. Neither Brenner nor Nelson claimed to have suffered any memory loss or repression following the alleged incidents of abuse.

II. THE ACCRUAL OF APPELLANTS' CLAIMS

When a motion to dismiss based upon the statute of limitations relies on matters beyond the four corners of the pleadings, as in these cases, *fn2 it is treated as a motion for summary judgment. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12(b); see Knight v. Furlow, 553 A.2d 1232, 1233 (D.C. 1989). Such a motion may not be granted if there is a genuine issue as to any material fact. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c). To defeat a summary judgment motion, therefore, "the opposing party need only show that there is sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial." Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 42 (D.C. 1979) (citation omitted), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078, 100 S.Ct. 1028, 62 L.Ed.2d 761 (1980).

The applicable statute of limitations in these cases provides that an action must be brought within three years "from the time the right to maintain the action accrues." D.C. Code § 12-301(8) (1995). When the potential plaintiff is a minor at the time of accrual, he may bring the action within three years of his eighteenth birthday. D.C. Code § 12-302(a)(1) (1995). What constitutes the [707 A2d Page 771]

accrual of a cause of action is a question of law; the actual date of accrual, however, is a question of fact. Diamond v. Davis, 680 A.2d 364, 370 (D.C. 1996); see also Bussineau v. President & Directors of Georgetown College, 518 A.2d 423, 425 (D.C. 1986); Ehrenhaft v. Malcolm Price, Inc., 483 A.2d 1192, 1204 (D.C. 1984). Thus we must ascertain whether there is a "genuine issue as to any material fact" concerning the date on which appellants' claims accrued; if not, and if the date of accrual was more than three years before they filed their respective complaints, then the Archbishop is "entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56(c).

The parties disagree as to the legal standard to be applied in determining the date of accrual of appellants' claims. Appellants argue that the so-called "discovery rule" is applicable to their claims and that the Archdiocese's fraudulent concealment of its wrongdoing delayed accrual until the publication of the Washington Post articles in 1995. The Archbishop contends that the discovery rule is inapplicable and that, in any event, appellants have not alleged facts that would support a tolling of the limitations period under the discovery rule. We need not resolve this dispute, because the outcome of these cases would be the same regardless of whether the discovery rule is or is not applicable. Under both the general rule of claim accrual and the discovery rule exception, the statute of limitations begins to run when a plaintiff either has actual knowledge of a cause of action or is charged with ...


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