Susan Crumiller and Carrie Goldberg are law firm owners, survivors, and best friends whose firms represent plaintiffs in sexual abuse and harassment litigation. Now, the two have teamed up to create a co-counsel initiative called Survivors Law Project
Brooklyn-based attorneys Susan Crumiller and Carrie Goldberg recently teamed up and launched the Survivors Law Project as a platform to represent plaintiffs in sexual abuse and harassment cases. Both are survivors themselves—this mission is very personal to them. They sat down with NLJ to discuss how litigation, the judiciary and juries have evolved since the onset of the #MeToo movement and what’s at stake now since the state of New York enacted The Adult Survivors Act in May 2022 creating a one year window to bring claims against abusers without statute of limitations.
You recently started the Survivors Law Project as an avenue to help sexual assault victims—this mission is also very personal to you—tell me more about it.
New York state passed this really historic legislation that gives survivors an unprecedented opportunity. There are so many of us who spent our whole lives thinking, we never had a shot at justice, that we just had to get over what happened to us and move on. And this new law changes everything in terms of validating our experiences and affirming that what happened to us is something that deserves justice.
Carrie and I, our firms are just a couple floors apart in the same building. We have some overlap in our practice areas, and we collaborate a ton. We started thinking, how can we really honor the importance of this? How can we help as many survivors as possible?
We came to the realization that joining forces would really make us unstoppable.
We’ve gotten numerous inquiries and our teams have been working side by side signing up cases, and it’s been so rewarding and wonderful to be this resource.
The creation of both of our firms stems from personal trauma. We built firms that directly target the kinds of harms that we ourselves faced. We are both survivors of sexual assault. The ASA [Adult Survivors Act] providing an opportunity for victims to sue their offenders, to have to pay, that hits us in a very personal way.
Every time somebody calls the Survivors Law Project or sends us an email, it validates that we chose the right profession.
From when you started your firms to the #MeToo movement until now, how much of an increase in sexual assault cases have you noticed?
I started my firm in 2014 and Susan started hers two years after. Since the time that we both started our firms as solo practitioners, we both built teams of over a dozen each. Our firms grew very rapidly because of the demand for the services that we provide for people that were victims of stalking, sexual assault, sextortion or revenge porn.
At the time I was one of the few attorneys doing that kind of work and started this new path and was pretty astonished—it was astonishing how many people needed my services very soon. And I don’t necessarily attribute that to us having a more dangerous society.
I think the fact that having attorneys like us demonstrate that you can actually take your offender down.
Carrie basically single-handedly invented what is now a pretty established legal field. When she started, nobody was doing this—now revenge porn is a common term. And lots of firms now offer the services that that Carrie invented. She invented the claims that didn’t exist. She helped [form] the statues that exist today because she said this is a gap in the law.
I will never get tired of saying it because I just don’t think it gets said enough: the main barrier to survivors seeking justice is the shame, guilt and self-blame that we all have a tendency to carry.
I think that any woman knows countless survivors. So many of my closest friends are survivors, so many of my family members are survivors. It’s so rampant and there are way more claims than could ever be brought in any courthouse.
The main barrier is that there’s still a huge stigma, a huge shame and feeling that this is a personal, private thing that we shouldn’t talk about publicly, that we take on ourselves and we carry it around ourselves.
To the extent that more survivors, both men and women, [come forward], we are starting to chip away that shame—every day we fight sex abuse and publicize these cases. It’s a slow process because attitudes are slow to change, but it is happening.
And so many of our clients never thought this was something they could talk about, something that was real, something they had the right to do anything about. I think that the law and the culture will continue to change. But the laws changing in and of itself mean nothing, unless we all confront this shame issue.
We also want survivors to know that what has changed is this notion that that sexual injuries are injuries that were intentional. Our clients were intentionally harmed, people who are in car accidents, who the trip and fall, there’s just a general recognition that our courts’ doors are open for them and that they deserve compensation if somebody’s hurt them.
Yet when it comes to sexual assault, where the harm was intentional, there’s so much more judgment on survivors to be suing—especially because our courts deal with money, they take money from the wrongdoer to hand to the victim, and there’s this idea that that victims of sexual assault, if they’re suing, then they must be gold diggers or they must be liars, or they must be opportunists or crazy.
We’re here to dispel that myth and to say vengeance is OK.
If people who are sexually assaulted or raped, something of significant, irretrievable value was taken, and there’s no harm that requires justice more than that.
The #MeToo movement was a big step forward. How far have we come, and how far do we still need to go?
With the #MeToo movement, the pendulum swung and people ask, did it swing too far? The answer is no; it was a small fraction of a correction.
What we’re going to see with the Adult Survivor Act cases in New York is, those cases go to trial, and we are going to have more informed juries, who are more receptive to the notion and more sophisticated about consent and sexual assault. A lot of people wait to take legal action – we still have a long way to go, but bringing cases and making rapists in the institutions that protect them pay, is huge.
One huge gap that still remains in the public knowledge is just how survivors respond to an attack. There are still so many myths out there and such a lack of understanding about how survivors process what happened to them. And so many common behaviors are misinterpreted as somehow undermining survivors’ credibility.
One of the biggest gaps is, we still think, ‘she texted him back.’ That somehow undermines her credibility. Instead of saying, for survivors, it’s a very common coping strategy to try to minimize in your own mind what happened to you because it’s such a painful truth to confront.
The defense attorneys perpetuate that, they often say, there are inconsistencies that the victims were too drunk to remember, that it was somebody else.
They have a very limited bag of tricks. One of the funniest things about having done a lot of sexual assault cases is being so able to predict the tactics of the defense attorneys: First they say, ‘I’m a big supporter of #MeToo—but this particular case has just taken the #MeToo movement too far.
Wait, Carrie, you forgot, “I have daughters … as a father of a daughter.’ They always talk about their daughters. I’m wondering, ‘do your daughters know that they’re being used as a scapegoat for your representation of sex abusers?”
How has the judiciary evolved with the increased number of these cases, have you seen a change in how juries perceive these cases?
We’re both very passionate about these issues, as you can tell. I think there’s still a very racist view of sexual assault—white women and white fragility are privileged in the discourse.
White, straight victims are prioritized and given more attention, more sympathy. Whereas, unequivocally black women, women of color and transgender women are significantly more likely to be the victims of sexual violence.
Disabled people are statistically so much more likely [to become victims of sexual violence] as well.
When we think of a victim, of a survivor, we focus on white, on privileged, straight, when really the typical portrait of a survivor is a marginalized person. We as a society have been very white-focused and this is no exception.
Has the judiciary evolved with the increasing amount of cases you are bringing?
It’s pretty astonishing, there’s still many judges that ask “why were you with that person? Why did you take those pictures in the first place? You need to be more careful. You need to use better judgment.”
My office has been doing some judicial training about gender-based violence. The response from judges and their eagerness to really understand the patterns has been overwhelming. We know that the judges want to get it. And we’re looking at them to recognize that these are as important as anything else on their docket, that we need them to move through the court systems quickly.
How important is it for you to come together as two trailblazer women attorneys to tackle these issues?
Susan and I were baby lawyers together. When we graduated from law school, we both went to work for a non-profit in Manhattan representing low income, marginalized people. Our friendship has been absolutely critical. Susan and I are constantly seeking support from one another. In our firms, we work on separate things but the one area where we overlap is sexual assault cases. We’re actually building something together – it’s been fun and challenging.
Litigation is a very creative process. It’s a safe place for us to share ideas. Is it different from working with men? My experience very broadly has been that many men tend to take things too personally. Men’s egos are often too much in the way.
Looking ahead, how do you see your work evolve throughout 2023?
I only feel hope and optimism about 2023. This is the year, when we’re going to see our survivors opening up the courthouse gates and demanding what’s theirs.
Personally, my hope is that people will come forward and bring these cases.
I feel the same optimism completely. My only potential concern is similar to what happened with the Child Victims Act in New York, where there are people who didn’t know about it. It’s very fortunate that New York City actually also happens to be opening up its own window starting in March for both adult and child survivors—that will be for two years because the Survivors Law Project has actually gotten a lot of calls from people who were child victims, but they didn’t know about the Child Victims Act during that window.
And states that have not created a look-back window for adult or children’s survivors need to get on it because they’ve got a population of people that have been injured and have never been able to get redress.