Renner K. Walker, left, and Corey M. Stern, associate and partner respectively in the New York offices of Levy Konigsberg | Photos courtesy of Levy Konigsberg
NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) – How many alleged victims could join a class action against Rockefeller University Hospital for allegedly covering up decades of a doctor's child sexual abuse may be indicated by the number of letters the university sent to former patients.
That's according to the lawyer suing Rockefeller University, which sent more than 1,000 letters last fall to former patients of the late Reginald Archibald, according to the class action Poppel v. Rockefeller filed Feb. 13 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The number of letters Rockefeller allegedly sent is conservatively estimated, says attorney Corey M. Stern, one of two attorneys who filed the class action on behalf of alleged victim Jeffrey M. Poppel.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signing the Child Victims Act on Feb. 14 | governor.ny.gov
"It is our contention that when Rockefeller sent letters in October to at least 1,000 victims, they did so recklessly and for the nefarious purpose of getting ahead of legislation they knew would be economically treacherous for them," Stern said. "Specifically, it was clear in mid-to-late 2018 that the New York legislators were going to turn far left, and that it was likely in 2019 they would pass the Child Victims Act."
Rockefeller University's letter "was a senseless re-victimization of folks who were sexually abused 30, 40 or 50 years ago, without any forethought as to how the letter would affect them," Stern said.
Stern, a partner in the New York offices of Levy Konigsberg, along with associate Renner K. Walker, filed the 40-page Poppel class action. Levy Konigsberg is a plaintiffs' advocacy law firm best known for work in asbestos, lead poisoning, whistleblower, medical malpractice and personal injury litigation.
Rockefeller University allegedly covered up more than four decades of sexual abuse of children by Archibald, a noted and formerly well-respected endocrinologist who stopped working at Rockefeller University Hospital in 1982. Archibald died in 2007.
Plaintiff Jeffrey Poppel, now 54 and who consented through his attorneys to be identified, alleges to have been one of Archibald's victims. Poppel alleges that Rockefeller University for years ignored allegations against Archibald but retained nude images Archibald took of child patients, including Poppel.
"As a part of its investigation and attempt to mitigate its liability, defendant Rockefeller mailed a correspondence to at least 1,000 former patients of Archibald," the Poppel class action said.
"The letter indicated that Rockefeller believed the recipient may have been the victim of inappropriate conduct by Archibald and included contact information for a lawyer and law firm - although the letter did not identify them as such, nor did the letter inform the recipients what uses their information would be put to."
The letter "reopened wounds and re-traumatized Archibald's victims, causing severe emotional distress and invading their privacy," the class action said.
"So Rockefeller thought that if it could get out in front, perhaps it could minimize losses through early settlements," Stern told Legal Newsline. "But the letter they sent didn't identify themselves as attorneys. It didn’t discuss what Rockefeller would do with information victims could provide. It didn't discuss HIPAA as part of its discussion of medical records."
The day after Stern and Walker filed the Poppel class action, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act, a reform of New York's child sexual abuse laws that Cuomo has said is "a key component" of his 2019 Justice Agenda.
"This bill brings justice to people who were abused, and rights the wrongs that went unacknowledged and unpunished for too long," Cuomo said in a statement issued with the signing. "By signing this bill, we are saying nobody is above the law, that the cloak of authority is not impenetrable and that if you violate the law, we will find out and you will be punished and justice will be done."
The Child Victims Act, which passed unanimously in the New York state Senate in January, had languished without passage for more than a decade. That changed after dozens of adults came forward with sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests in the Diocese of Buffalo and in other New York institutions.
The Poppel class action was only the latest in New York but that state isn't the only one to be rocked by allegations of child sexual abuse for years by people entrusted with children. One class action filed in Pittsburgh is asking the Catholic Church to admit it participated for years in a cover-up and release records it has maintained.
The Poppel lawsuit differs from the Pittsburgh class action on that point, Stern said.
"We are seeking damages," he said.
The Poppel class action says that "members of the class are so numerous that joinder of all members is impractical," but Stern said there are ways they can be identified.
"Class members will be identified through discovery," he said.
That process would include requests for production of documents, admissions interrogatories and depositions, Stern said.
"As to what happens next, my guess is the defendants will seek to dismiss the case either based on jurisdictional grounds or some other baseless theory," he said.