An Update on 5 Colleges’ Legal Battles Against Sexual Misconduct Lawsuits

Posted January 29th, 2019.

As It Appeared On Corporate Counsel

Several major universities are fighting their own sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases. Here’s an update on their efforts.

By Sue Reisinger

A year ago this month sports doctor Larry Nassar was sent to prison for sexually abusing student athletes at Michigan State University. Now several other major universities are fighting their own sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases.

Here’s an update on their efforts.

Ohio State University

U.S. District Judge Michael Watson of the Southern District of Ohio in Columbus has ordered the school into mediation with former student athletes who have filed two suits claiming they were sexually abused by former sports doctor Richard Strauss. The doctor took his own life in 2005.

The Jan. 17 order came as the university asked the court to dismiss the cases based on the statute of limitations.

Both sides said they welcome mediation. Special counsel Michael Carpenter, appointed by the Ohio Attorney General to represent the school, told the student newspaper, the Lantern, “Under the court’s established processes, we welcome mediation and will confer and bring forward to the court a recommendation for a mediator.” Carpenter is from the Columbus office of the litigation boutique Carpenter Lipps & Leland. Ohio State general counsel Christopher Cully did not return a message Tuesday seeking comment.

Michigan State University

The university’s legal fees in the Nassar scandal have reached nearly $20 million, according to a Jan. 23 report by the Lansing State Journal. The majority of the legal fees—$13.4 million—have gone to two law firms: Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Latham & Watkins, the newspaper said.

The fees are growing because the school is paying for the criminal defense of three former employees, including former university president, Lou Anna Simon, who is charged with lying to investigators about her knowledge of complaints against Nassar. Simon faces a Jan. 31 criminal hearing.

Dartmouth College

Dartmouth on Jan. 15 filed its response to a lawsuit filed by seven students who accused three former psychology professors of sexually harassing and, in one case, sexually abusing them. The school denied liability and claimed it acted in a timely manner to remove the professors. The case is in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire.

Among other things, the response said the professors, “if they acted as alleged, did so completely outside their scope of employment and in violation of Dartmouth’s policies and core values.” The response was filed by Dartmouth outside counsel Joan Lukey, of Choate Hall & Stewart in Boston.

Deborah Marcuse, lead counsel for the women and a partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp, said in a statement to Corporate Counsel, “Dartmouth’s 85-page answer includes a laundry list of crucial admissions: that complaints about inappropriate conduct by [these] professors spanned more than a decade; that the college considered them ‘isolated’ incidents and chose to address them in isolation; and that high-level administrators knew about inappropriate conduct by the professors. Even now, faced with the reality of a toxic environment Dartmouth fostered for multiple generations of female students, Dartmouth considers itself blameless.”

A message Tuesday to Dartmouth general counsel Sandhya Iyer was forwarded to Diana Lawrence, associate vice president in the Office of Communications, who replied, “Thank you for the opportunity to comment, but we are going to decline.”

Columbia University

Former student Irene Politis on Jan. 17 filed an amended sexual misconduct complaint against Columbia and former Dean Thomas Harford in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. The changes include filing under her own name rather than proceeding as Jane Doe; alleging that Columbia knew that Harford had a history of sexually harassing and stalking women at the university; and increasing the amount of damages to $60 million.

“Ms. Politis’s original complaint contained facts that were the tip of the iceberg,” said a statement from David Sanford, lead counsel and a name partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp. “We knew that Dean Harford had engaged in coercive sexual behavior with her, and that Columbia failed to protect her from this misconduct. Since the filing of the original complaint, we have learned that Columbia was aware of Dean Harford’s prior acts of sexual harassment and stalking, tolerated it, and thereby empowered Dean Harford to victimize Ms. Politis.”

Columbia general counsel Jane Booth forwarded a message for comment to a university spokesperson who said, “Upon learning of allegations made against Tom Harford in August 2018, Columbia University immediately removed Mr. Harford from his position as Dean of Students of the School of General Studies, and his employment was terminated. The University and its officials had no knowledge of the events prompting the complaint before they were officially reported to us. Mr. Harford is prohibited from ever returning to our campus. These actions were taken in a matter of days, reflecting Columbia’s commitment to the safety and well-being of our students.

“We will soon be responding in court to the claims set forth in the amended complaint. However, we note that Columbia has worked diligently to support Ms. Politis with appropriate resources and guidance, including continuing to provide campus housing. She was not asked to leave her Columbia apartment.”

Columbia is represented by Michele Hirshman of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Roberta Kaplan of Kaplan Hecker & Fink. Kaplan filed with the court Tuesday a letter stating that Columbia intends to file a motion to dismiss. “Columbia continues to believe that plaintiff’s claims should be dismissed in their entirety,” it stated. An initial court conference is scheduled Jan. 31.

Harford, who has not yet filed a response in court, is represented by Amy Walsh and Mark Thompson of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in New York. Neither was immediately available for comment Tuesday.

University of Southern California

Thirty-five more women in January filed court complaints alleging they too were sexually abused by USC gynecologist George Tyndall, who has more than 200 police complaints for sexual misconduct lodged against him. Over 300 women have filed suits in both state and federal courts in California.

Tyndall has not been criminally charged and has denied the allegations.

The suits allege that Tyndall sexually assaulted the women under the guise of performing medical exams.

Last October, USC offered the victims $215 million to settle the claims against it, but plaintiffs said it was not enough money. By comparison, Michigan State settled some 300 claims for about $500 million.

The plaintiffs are being represented by an array of California law firms, including Manly, Stewart & Finaldi and Allred, Maroko & Goldberg. USC is represented by Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan.

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