WILMINGTON — The civil suit against former New Hanover County School teacher and convicted sex offender Michael Kelly continues to move forward. The lawsuit could see an expanded scope, and potentially more plaintiffs, if Governor Roy Cooper signs a law — recently passed in the state’s House of Representatives and Senate — that expands the statutes of limitations or sexual abuse.
On Thursday, responses were also filed by the administration and Board of Education; former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, who resigned amid an investigation into the school’s administration, provided a response separately earlier this month.
[Editor’s note: Stay tuned for a closer look at the responses from Dr. Markley and the Board tomorrow.]
Expanding the statutes of limitations
On Thursday, both the House and Senate of the North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 199, which — among other things — extends the statutes of limitations in civil cases involving victims of sexual abuse before they turn 18. The bill now awaits a signature from Governor Cooper to be ratified.
Under the current state statute, victims have three years from turning 18 to file civil lawsuits concerning childhood abuse. In many cases, victims have difficulty addressing childhood sexual abuse until later in adulthood; for that reason, many are time-barred from filing suit for abuse that occurred while they were under 18.
If Senate Bill 199 is ratified, it will do several things:
- It allows victims until the age of 28 to file suit
- It will ‘revive’ time-barred claims, creating a two-year window to refile, starting in January 2020 and lasting for two years
- It exempts case for the 10-year statute of repose that begins on the date of the last ‘wrongful act’ committed by a defendant
- It gives victims an additional two years to bring civil suits following the date of a felony conviction of a defendant who committed a sexual crime against the victim while they were under 18
This law would likely have a serious impact on the current lawsuit against Kelly, Markley, and the Board. One of the defenses put forward by the defendants in their filing on Thursday is that the claims of the plaintiffs are time-barred. There are also other potential victims, who have not yet filed, who would be time-barred under the current laws.
Attorney Joel Rhine, of the Rhine Law Firm, and attorney Jim Lea, of the Lea/Schultz Law Firm, both responded optimistically to the news that SB199 was moving forward. The two law firms are co-counsel in the suit against Kelly, the board, and the district administration. Rhine called the bill’s progress on Thursday “an extraordinary day for the victims throughout North Carolina, as well as New Hanover County.”
Lea noted the importance for both current and potential future plaintiffs, saying “in our lawsuit, all of the defendants who have answered the Plaintiffs’ complaint – Defendant Rick Holliday, Timothy Markley and the Board of Education – have alleged the statute of limitations as a defense in the case. Today’s legislation, if signed by the Governor, will allow for all of these victims and others to come forward and have their day in court.”
Lea and Rhine gave credit for the bill’s successful passage through the assembly to State Senator Harper Peterson, who has been an advocate for the issue.
Criminal records, ongoing investigation
On Monday, the Board of Education and Superintendent Markley are expected in Superior Court to make a motion, requesting that the court compel the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) and other law enforcement agencies to hand over records from the criminal investigation of Kelly.
The records could indicate a number of things, including whether investigators suspected other district employees of criminal behavior, including but not limited to failure to report Kelly’s behavior.
Several former victims and witnesses have alleged that administrators, including Holliday, were notified — sometimes repeatedly — of Kelly’s behavior, as well as potential misconduct by other employees, like former band instructor Richard Priode (who left the district and was later arrested for having a sexual relationship with a student in Mecklenburg County). Dr. Holliday has formally denied these allegations in his response to the lawsuit.
Failure to report sexual misconduct — or even the suspicion of sexual misconduct — is a crime in and of itself. While NHCSO was initially investigating potential failure to report crimes, the investigation has since been turned over to the State Bureau of Investigation.
According to spokesperson Anjanette Grube, “[t]he SBI continues to conduct an investigation into allegations of failure to report regarding the New Hanover County School Board. Several allegations were made while this case was being investigated that have been sent to the Attorney General’s office for review.”
The Attorney General’s office confirmed this, but according to a spokesperson could not share any details about an ongoing investigation.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001