People For the American Way

Biden Judges’ Unanimous Opinion Authorizes Woman to Pursue Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Despite Lower Court Dismissal

News and Analysis
Biden Judges’ Unanimous Opinion Authorizes Woman to Pursue Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Despite Lower Court Dismissal

Judge Alison Nathan, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, wrote a unanimous opinion joined by Biden judge Eunice Lee that reversed a lower court and allowed a woman to pursue claims that a former ICE officer sexually abused her over a seven year period. The court ruled that the district court should not have strictly enforced the statute of limitations to dismiss the suit under the circumstances. The August 2023 decision was in Doe v United States.


What is the Background of this Case?

 Jane Doe is a pseudonym for a legal US resident from Honduras who went to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  office in  Connecticut in 2006 to see her brother, who she believed was detained there. ICE officer Wilfredo Rodriguez said he was not there but claimed there was a pending deportation order for her. He said he would allow her to stay in the US with her children if she agreed to provide information on other Hondurans who he claimed were in the US illegally. She agreed to cooperate and did so without incident until early 2007.

In January 2007, according to Doe’s complaint, Rodriguez instructed her to meet him in a motel room so he could show her a picture of someone he wanted her to help identify. When she arrived, there was no picture, but he proceeded to threaten, abuse, and rape her. For the next seven years, he “regularly raped Doe in various locations,” using “threats of violence and deportation to maintain his control” over her and prevent her from reporting the assaults. He also forced her to do tasks and “treated her as his ‘slave.’” She suffered mental health problems, three attempted suicides, three pregnancies that were terminated via abortion, and  bruises and related injuries. Based on his threats, she did not disclose Rodriguez’s abuse.

In 2014, Rodriguez told Doe that he was leaving ICE, but threatened to kill her if she told anyone what had happened. After his departure, he stopped having further contact with her but she remained frightened.

Four years later, at a meeting that she reluctantly had with other ICE agents about an asylum application for her father, Doe finally disclosed what Rodriguez had done. The agents “advised her to retain an attorney.” She did, and filed a lawsuit against Rodriguez and government agencies a few months later in 2018. Since the lawsuit was filed four years after Rodriguez’s abusive misconduct ended, however, the district court judge dismissed the case because it was filed after the three-year statute of limitations. She appealed, claiming that the lower court should have equitably tolled the timeliness requirements under the circumstances and allowed the lawsuit to go forward.


How did Judges Nathan, Lee and the Second Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

Judge Nathan wrote a unanimous opinion joined by Judge Lee that vacated the lower court ruling and instructed it to reconsider  the case. Contrary to the lower court, the panel found that the evidence in the record could have allowed it to conclude that the “prerequisites for equitable tolling” of the statute of limitations “were met,” because the record “makes plausible the inference that years of violent sexual abuse and threats to her life constituted an extraordinary circumstance preventing Doe from sooner pursuing her claims,” and she “acted with reasonable diligence.”

Nathan explained the importance of equitable tolling “to prevent inequity,” particularly where a defendant “threaten[s]” someone if they file a claim against him. Courts in other jurisdictions, she noted, have “recognized that the psychological impact of long-term sexual abuse can constitute an extraordinary circumstance that prevents a victim from coming forward even for some time after the abuse has ceased.” In this case, accordingly, the district court should act “in a fact-finding capacity” to determine whether the circumstances warrant equitable tolling and allowing Doe to proceed with her case.

The Second Circuit decision is obviously important to allowing Jane Doe to seek justice and accountability for the terrible wrongs she suffered. It also sets an important precedent in the circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, that specifically recognizes the importance of equitable tolling in cases involving sexual abuse. The holding is also yet another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judges Nathan and Lee to our federal courts.