By Justin George and Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
8:11 PM EDT, July 1, 2013
A U.S. district judge on Monday dismissed three sexual-abuse lawsuits against Kevin Clash, the voice of Sesame Street's "Elmo" muppet until the allegations surfaced, saying the plaintiffs waited too long to file the civil cases.
The ruling in the cases represented a victory for Clash, a 52-year-old Baltimore County native who has repeatedly denied the allegations, but a setback to the plaintiffs, whose lawyer contends the statute of limitations effectively "silences" victims.
The lawsuits, all filed in New York federal court within the past year by now-grown men, alleged that Clash had consensual sexual relations with the plaintiffs when they were teenagers and legally unable to consent. Clash has not been charged criminally.
Clash's attorney, Michael G. Berger, said in a statement that his client was "pleased" with the decision, which he called "an important step" toward rehabilitating his image. Berger noted that the actor, who became a worldwide celebrity giving voice to a beloved red puppet, won three Emmys last month.
"As we have maintained all along, our goal has been to put these spurious claims behind him, so that Kevin can go about the business of reclaiming his personal life and his professional standing," Berger said. "Kevin is looking forward to a time in the near future when he can tell his story free of innuendo and false claims."
The dismissals cast uncertainty over whether plaintiffs will get a chance to prove the allegations, and whether Clash will get the chance to refute the claims based on their merit in court.
Another New York case against Clash was voluntarily dismissed in April, leaving one surviving lawsuit.
That lawsuit is not covered by a statute of limitations because it was filed by a 24-year-old in Pennsylvania, where alleged victims have until the age of 30 to take legal action. Berger also has filed a motion to dismiss that case.
Jeff Herman, an attorney who represents the three plaintiffs in the cases dismissed Monday, said in a statement that he plans to appeal the decision and called the statute of limitations governing such cases "an arbitrary timeline that silences victims."
Clash resigned from "Sesame Street" in November after his second accuser came forward and filed suit against him. Clash has received eight "outstanding performer" Emmys as Elmo.
Howard Bragman, who runs a public relations firm but does not represent Clash, lauded the dismissals.
"Kevin is a great guy. I have always believed that these cases were without merit and filed to humiliate Kevin into a settlement," said Bragman, who called Clash a friend. "I am glad the court vindicated him and wish him every success as he goes through the difficult challenge of rebuilding his life and his reputation. I'm betting on him."
The three cases dismissed Monday, from plaintiffs Cecil Singleton, Kevin Kiadii and "John Doe," were all filed at least nine years after the abuse allegedly occurred, and several years after the plaintiffs reached the age of 21.
New York law allows civil claims of sexual abuse to be filed up to six years after the events or three years after the plaintiff turns 21, whichever time period is longer.
The man who filed under the pseudonym "John Doe" claimed in court papers that he waited 16 years to file a claim after the alleged abuse in 1996 because he wasn't "able to make a causal connection between his injuries and the sexual acts … until 2012" and "could not reasonably be expected to know that he had been injured" before then.
Kiadii alleged that he had a multi-year relationship with Clash that began when he was 15. He claimed he was a "compliant victim" because he was not emotionally or psychologically prepared for the association.
Singleton offered similar reasoning in language "nearly identical" to that in the other complaints, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl noted.
Singleton called the dismissal and the limits on coming forward "terrible" and vowed to not give up. "It's an individual process for someone to come to terms with what happened," he said.
When Herman filed the lawsuits, he argued that New York's statute of limitations gives victims six years to come forward after they comprehended that they had been victims of abuse. He said the men didn't come to full realization of the abuse until last year.
"We believe that the victims in this case are within the statute of limitations," Herman said in his statement. "But this ruling highlights the need for a window in New York to allow victims to have their day in court.
"This is the first battle. We plan to appeal the decision and continue the fight to be a voice for victims."
Richard M. Serbin, a Pennsylvania attorney who specializes in sex abuse claims, said victims typically do not come forward right away.
"Most of the time it takes years for them to deal with the demons of being sexually abused, and only in adult life do they have the wherewithal and courage to come forward," Serbin said.
Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, said many states, including Pennsylvania, have extended their statutes of limitations, while New York has not done so.
"New York has some of the shortest statutes of limitations in the country," for sex abuse cases, she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun