Cover-ups of Pedophile Clergy Members; Tolling of Statute of Limitations; Secondary Cause of Action for Civil Conspiracy

Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, 212 A.3d 1055 (Pa. Super. 2019), allocatur granted March 2, 2020, appeal docket 3 WAP 2020

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will consider whether, in light of Pennsylvania precedent, tolling the statute of limitations is appropriate in cases of systematic cover-ups of pedophile clergy members based on the discovery rule and fraudulent-concealment, and in rejecting the tolling theories, whether a viable claim of civil conspiracy remains where a cause of action to remedy the primary cause of harm is time-barred.

In the mid-1970s, Renee Rice (Rice) was a nine-year-old child that attended the St. Leo’s Church in Altoona when Reverend Charles F. Bodziak (Fr. Bodziak) began sexually abusing her. This abuse continued until she turned fourteen years old. Roughly 35 years later, the 37th Statewide Investigative Grand Jury began examining Altoona-Johnstown Diocese for child-sexual assault. A report was released in 2016, which detailed a systematic cover-up of a pedophile clergy, and Rice learned that the Diocese, Bishop Adamec, and Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky (Diocesan Defendants) knew or should have known that Fr. Bodziak had a history of pedophilia before he began at St. Leo’s Church. A few months later, Rice sued the Diocesan Defendants for fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy to protect the Church and Fr. Bodziak. Applying Pennsylvania Superior Court precedent, which provides that the statute of limitations time-bars claims filed against pedophile clergy and corporate manifestations of the Catholic Church, because “the victims should have known that the Church was potentially liable for any harm they suffered the moment a clergy member sexually assaulted them,” the trial court granted judgment on the pleadings to the Diocesan Defendants. Slip Op. at 4, citing Meehan v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 870 A.2d 912 (Pa. Super. 2005) and Baselice v. Franciscan Friars Assumption BVM Province, Inc., 879 A.2d 270 (Pa. Super. 2005). However, “the trial court observed ‘that the law is trending toward allowing the discovery rule and the doctrine of fraudulent concealment to toll the statute of limitations in . . . cases such as this.’” Slip Op. at 5. Rice appealed to Superior Court, arguing that the trial court misapplied the discovery rule, the fraudulent-concealment doctrine, and the statute of limitations for civil conspiracy. Ten months later, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided Nicolaou v. Martin, 195 A.3d 880 (Pa. 2018), which emphasized the jury’s prerogative, under the discovery rule, to decide whether a plaintiff’s efforts to investigate a defendant were sufficiently reasonable to toll the statute of limitations.

Superior Court reversed the trial court’s grant of judgment on the pleadings to the Diocesan Defendants and remanded the case, reasoning that “Nicolaou has opened the courthouse doors for Ms. Rice’s case to proceed past the pleadings stage, notwithstanding this Court’s precedents to the contrary.” Slip op. at 2. Additionally, Superior Court explained:

Ms. Rice’s alleged circumstances allow her to argue to the finder of fact that the Diocesan Defendants owed her a fiduciary duty to disclose their ongoing cover-up and Fr. Bodziak’s history of child molestation. By failing to disclose, the Diocesan Defendants’ silence may have induced Ms. Rice to relax her vigilance or to deviate from her right of inquiry. The trial court, therefore, erred by not permitting her case to proceed according to her fraudulent-concealment theory.

Finally, even if a jury rejects those two tolling theories, Ms. Rice’s civil conspiracy count remains viable. She alleges a continuing conspiracy and that the last act in furtherance of the conspiracy occurred in 2016. Based upon these allegations, Ms. Rice has filed this lawsuit well within the statute of limitations for civil conspiracy.

Slip op. at 2-3. Specifically, the court concluded that:

All three of Ms. Rice’s issues on appeal have merit. As to the discovery rule, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has supplanted this Court’s Meehan-Baselice line of cases with Nicolaou. Only a jury may determine whether Ms. Rice reasonably investigated the Diocesan Defendants for their intentional torts. Also, Meehan and Baselice left room for the parishioner-plus rule in Pennsylvania. When, as here, a plaintiff alleges a fiduciary relationship with a religious institution or its leadership, based on her specific role(s) within the institution or based on a counselling relationship, this creates a jury question. If a jury finds sufficient facts to prove a confidential relationship, it may also find that the Church’s silence constituted a fraudulent concealment. Finally, under Ms. Rice’s alleged facts, she timely filed her third cause of action for civil conspiracy.

Slip Op. at 37.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to examine whether:

(1) Did the Superior Court commit reversible error by misinterpreting the fact-specific holding of Nicolaou v. Martin,195 A.3d 880 (Pa. 2018) — a latent disease/medical malpractice case that did not purport to overrule Meehan v. Archdiocese of Phila., 870 A.2d, 912 (Pa. Super. 2005), Baselice v. Franciscan Friars Assumption BVM Province, Inc., 879 A.2d 270 (Pa. Super. 2005), or any other precedent — thereby abrogating the statute of limitations and the discovery rule in civil actions?

(2) Did the Superior Court commit reversible error by establishing for the first time a rule whereby a fiduciary once in a confidential relationship owes a never-ending duty to speak after the end of the relationship, thereby eliminating a plaintiff’s duty to exercise due diligence and conduct a reasonable investigation in support of his/her causes of action?

(3) Did the Superior Court commit reversible error by overruling precedent and holding that a plaintiff may bring a secondary cause of action for civil conspiracy where the primary cause of the harm is time barred?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.