A lawsuit filed late last year against the Alamance-Burlington school board has been put on hold, pending a North Carolina Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of a 2019 state law, the SAFE Child Act, that gave adult victims of childhood sexual abuse an additional two years to file a lawsuit.
Previously, victims of child sex abuse had until age 21 to file suit. The SAFE Act created a temporary “lookback” window that provided two additional years in which adult victims of child sexual abuse could seek monetary damages.
A former Graham High School student, David Knighten, filed a lawsuit against the Alamance-Burlington school board in late December 2021, seeking an unspecified amount in damages for an alleged sexual assault that he claims occurred about 22 years ago, when he was 16, under provisions within the SAFE Act.
Attorneys for Knighten and the school board subsequently filed a joint motion for a stay of all proceedings in the matter, pending a resolution of the key underlying issue: the constitutionality of the SAFE Act that the General Assembly passed in 2019.
Should the SAFE Child Act be deemed unconstitutional, “many cases filed under the SAFE Child Act, possibly including this one, will be moot,” the attorneys for the plaintiff and ABSS school board wrote in their joint motion for a stay of the proceedings that was subsequently filed this spring in Alamance County civil superior court.
“Judicial economy will best be served by allowing our appellate courts to resolve the validity of [the SAFE Child Act] before this action proceeds,” the joint motion states. Alamance County senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth, Jr. entered an order granting the stay earlier this summer, according to the court file.
In his suit, Knighten claims that he was sexually assaulted “in approximately 2000” by one of his teachers at Graham High School, Jose Luis Alegria, who had offered to give Knighten a ride home from school. The court file lists Alegria’s address as 717 Askew Street in Burlington.
Knighten alleges that “Alegria made a detour to his personal residence” and took the 16-year-old boy into his bedroom, where he fondled Knighten’s “genitals underneath his clothing,” according to the lawsuit.
Now in his middle to late-30s, Knighten claims the alleged assault has caused him ongoing “emotional pain and suffering” and “severe physical and mental injuries arising from the sexual assaults/batteries committed by Alegria,” in addition to incurring medical and other expenses, his suit asserts.
The court file gives no indication that the alleged sexual assault had been reported to Graham High School administrators, Alamance-Burlington school board members, or to local law enforcement. No criminal charges related to the allegation appear to have been filed against Alegria, based on Alamance County court documents.
Temporary extension of statute of limitations ruled unconstitutional
The SAFE Child Act was declared unconstitutional by a three-judge panel in Wake County in December 2021, multiple news outlets reported. In that case, three former Gaston County students sued the Gaston County school board and their former wrestling coach, Gary Scott Goins, under the expanded statute of limitations in the 2019 state law. (Goins was convicted in 2014 of committing multiple sexual offenses against student athletes and was sentenced to 34 years in prison, according to multiple news reports.)
Don Higley of Lanier Law Group subsequently filed an appeal on behalf of the three former Gaston County students but dismissed Goins as a defendant, according to documents on file in the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
In July, the state Supreme Court announced that it would “accelerate appeals over the constitutionality” of the SAFE Act, bypassing the traditional Court of Appeals route, the Associated Press Reported.
Meanwhile, ABSS has filed a motion to dismiss Knighten’s lawsuit on grounds that the SAFE Child Act of 2019 is unconstitutional. ABSS contends the law is “unconstitutionally void for vagueness, in that the revival of ‘any civil action for child sexual abuse otherwise time-barred’ is susceptible to multiple conflicting interpretations, thus unconstitutionally delegating a legislative policy decision to the judicial branch of government for resolution.”
ABSS also asserts that Knighten’s suit should be dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted. “[The SAFE Child Act] did not revive negligence claims, such as…negligent hiring, supervision, retention, and negligent infliction of emotional distress,” according to the motion to dismiss. The school board’s attorneys argue that any alleged wrongful acts by Alegria were done outside the scope of his employment, and thus the school board cannot be held liable.
The Alamance County clerk of court’s office had mailed Alegria a notice of a hearing that had been scheduled earlier this month in Alamance County superior court. The envelope was marked “returned to sender,” returned to the clerk’s office, and placed in the court file.
The school board is being represented by the Brooks Pierce law firm in Greensboro. Knighten is being represented by Lanier Law Group, which has an office in Burlington and offices in eight other N.C. cities.