Appellate court resurrects OSU lawsuit over serial predator it employed
COLUMBUS, OH — SEPTEMBER 02: On the campus of The Ohio State University, September 2, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for the Ohio Capital Journal / Republish photo only with original story)
A panel of judges resurrected a lawsuit against Ohio State University brought by sex abuse victims who allege the school knew of and covered up the serial predation of a physician it employed.
In a split ruling from the judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals released Wednesday, Judge Karen Nelson Moore writing for the majority ruled that the decades that have passed since the abuse occurred don’t block the Title IX lawsuit from moving forward.
The lawsuit centers on conduct of Richard Strauss, who served as team doctor for 17 different sports and as a physician at the student health center. During his tenure, Strauss committed at least 1,429 sexual assaults and 47 rapes, according to Moore’s ruling. Most the victims were men seeing him for personal or athletic clinical visits.
The university’s failure to adequately investigate the dozens of complaints it received over decades against Strauss, its misrepresentations to students about its knowledge of Strauss’ conduct, and its decision to allow him to quietly step away from his university job, all blocked the students from comprehending the full extent of OSU’s enabling role in the abuse, the opinion states.
This concealment, Moore ruled, means the two-year statute of limitations within which the plaintiffs must bring a suit didn’t start at the time of the abuse but at the time the university disclosed the full extent of it.
“In short, although plaintiffs allege that Ohio State administrators knew of the abuse at the time, the plaintiffs allege that they did not know until 2018 that Ohio State administrators knew or that they enabled and perpetuated the abuse,” Moore, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, wrote.
In the fall of 2021, U.S. District Judge Michael Watson granted OSU’s request that he dismiss the lawsuit, expressing sympathy for the victims but determining the statute of limitations has passed. The Sixth Circuit ruling sends the case back to Watson, although it’s subject to appeal. Neither side directly answered questions regarding their next steps.
An Ohio State spokesman said Thursday the university is reviewing the ruling. The legal team representing the plaintiffs said the ruling means the university can’t try to “run out the clock” on its own role “enabling and concealing” Strauss’ decades of abuse.
“After over four years of litigation, it is now time for OSU to be held accountable and for these survivors to get their day in court,” said Ilann Maazel, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The appellate opinion covers two separate lawsuits covering more than 100 of Strauss’ victims. Another eight lawsuits are still active, leaving a total of 236 Strauss victims navigating the court system. The university has settled with 296 others who sued it, paying out more than $60 million, according to a university count.
The lead plaintiff in one of the two lawsuits, Stephen Snyder-Hill, was one of Strauss’ final known victims. He was abused by Strauss and lied to by a university official in 1996 about Strauss’ history of abuse and complaints, as was recently detailed in an Ohio Capital Journal profile of Snyder-Hill.
As reported, despite a public posture of apology, the university has fought Strauss’ victims in court, in backstage political fights at the Statehouse, and in related lawsuits over public records requests related to Strauss.
In a brief interview Thursday, Snyder-Hill said he didn’t know how to feel about the victory. Throughout the legal fight, Ohio State has avoided disputing the underlying facts and instead focused on the statute of limitations.
“So now what do they say? What’s their talking point now?” he said. “At some point, the story is no longer about Strauss. It’s about [OSU]. It’s about what they’ve done.”
Judge Ralph Guy Jr., first appointed to the federal bench by President Gerald Ford, dissented from the decision.
“Here, the alleged sexual abuse and alleged failure of the university to take corrective action are egregious and reprehensible,” he said. “But that is not a license to ignore well-established principles regarding when certain claims accrue.”
He also cited the Ohio General Assembly’s decision against passing (or even voting on) legislation that would have waived the statute of limitations for Strauss’ victims. The lawsuit, he said, was a means of granting the victims “what the democratic process has effectively denied them.”
The university allowed Strauss to retire in 1998 and keep his emeritus status without disclosing his history of abuse. He died by suicide in 2005.
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