Lawyers representing the victims of an Ohio State University physician’s decades of sexual abuse asked a federal appellate court Tuesday to overturn a judge’s dismissal of their lawsuit against the school.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson dismissed a Title IX lawsuit the victims filed against the university, ruling that the statute of limitations on the decades-old offenses had long passed.
Ohio State — which has generally acknowledged the abuse from Dr. Richard Strauss, who treated injuries and administered physical exams to male athletes before they could compete — urged justices on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold Watson’s dismissal.
Ilann Maazel said on behalf of the plaintiffs that the court should reverse the dismissal. For one, he said the university’s years-long concealment of Strauss’ conduct means the timer on the two-year statute of limitations shouldn’t begin ticking until the victims know the extent of the university’s complicity. In short, they didn’t know of the university’s role enabling Strauss because of how OSU buried complaints against its doctor.
For two, he said dismissing the lawsuit effectively rewards Ohio State for a coverup well done.
“We should not let the university profit off of its own deception,” Maazel said.
Between 1979 and 1996, Strauss sexually abused at least 177 mostly male victims, usually under guise of medical treatment, according to a 2018 investigation commissioned by the university. Eighty-four are signed on as plaintiffs in the case at hand.
University personnel had knowledge of Strauss’ conduct as early as 1979, but the complaints and reports went nowhere until 1996. At that point, the university suspended Strauss from his athletics and student health positions but allowed him to remain on as a tenured faculty member. Though he retired in 1997, the university gave him an “emeritus” honorific which he maintained until his death by suicide in 2005.
Mike Carpenter, a lawyer representing OSU, said the “university of today” took actions in 2018 when it learned of Strauss’ conduct. That includes providing free counseling to victims, a comparatively modest settlement program, condemnation of Strauss and an apology to his victims.
However, he called statutes of limitation a “bedrock principle” of law. The victims, he said, knew more than enough to bring a lawsuit against the university and could have done so between 1978 and 1998, depending on when they were abused.
The question of what the victims knew of their abuse is a central and complex issue in the case. Most the abuse occurred amid a power dynamic. The athletes needed Strauss’ clearance to compete, which could have implications on their financial scholarships. Additionally, the abuse came under guise of medical treatment — in at least one case, a hamstring injury led to Strauss fondling a man’s genitals. Thus, patients with no clinical background were left distinguishing medical care from sexual abuse, as executed by an esteemed physician with control over their athletic futures.
“Many victims never seek to question behavior of doctors,” Maazel said. “There are many, many patients who do not recognize sexual abuse of a doctor.”
Title IX, a federal civil rights law, controls how federally funded schools must address incidents of sexual discrimination from university personnel. It doesn’t have its own statute of limitations, so the law defers to state law on the underlying offense. In this case, that’s two years.
Stephen Snyder-Hill wasn’t an athlete at OSU but an ordinary student who walked into the student health center in January 1995 concerned about a lump on his chest. There, he became one of the last known victims of Strauss’ abuse. Strauss gave him a testicular and anal exam and allegedly pressed his erection against his patient.
After Snyder-Hill filed a complaint, the university arranged a two-hour meeting between Snyder-Hill, Strauss and two university officials that grew heated. It ended in a deal that Snyder-Hill drop his complaint if the university gave him their word that Strauss had not been the subject of similar complaints. One of those officials, Head of Student Services Ted Grace, later claimed as much in a letter to Snyder-Hill. Unbeknownst to Snyder-Hill, another student had complained about Strauss’ conduct mere days earlier.
Snyder-Hill is now the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. He sat in on oral arguments Tuesday and expressed confidence afterward that the judges were skeptical of OSU.
“They’re just so full of s**t,” he said in an interview afterward. “Being in there, it was incredible.”
In September 2021, Watson granted OSU’s motion to throw out the lawsuit. He lambasted Strauss’ “unspeakable sexual abuse” and the university’s failure to protect its students. However, he said the statute of limitations leaves him no choice.
“Plaintiffs beseech this Court to hold Ohio State accountable, but today, the legal system also fails Plaintiffs,” Watson said. “Plaintiffs’ pain and suffering is neither questioned nor overlooked by this Court; indeed, their claims cry out for a remedy.”
He said they would need legislative intervention to properly bring their lawsuit.
One bill narrowly written to allow the Strauss victims to overcome the statute of limitations was introduced in 2019 but stalled out after a few committee hearings. The Ohio Capital Journal reported in October that lawmakers said they secretly never intended to pass the bill, and only held the hearings to give victims a forum to publicly tell their stories and apply pressure to OSU to settle the lawsuits. Several Strauss victims say they were never told of this strategy.
At the time, the university quietly lobbied on the bill through the “Ohio Alliance for Civil Justice,” according to records obtained by the student publication The Lantern.
As of last week, OSU has reached settlements with 296 Strauss victims for more than $60 million. This amounts to about $203,000 per victim. Maazel referred to this as a “paltry” sum in comparison with the disturbingly established market of legal settlements stemming from serial sexual predators employed and enabled by universities.
For instance, Michigan State University paid $500 million to settle lawsuits in 2018 filed by 332 alleged victims of Larry Nassar’s abuse, which occurred under guise of medical treatments while serving as a women’s gymnastics doctor at the university and Olympic level. That’s about $1.5 million per victim.
The University of Southern California paid $852 million last year to 710 women who accused campus gynecologist George Tyndall of sexual assault and said the university failed to properly respond — that’s about $1.2 million per victim.
Earlier this year, the University of Michigan reached a $490 million settlement with about 1,050 people who alleged abuse by Dr. Robert Anderson — about $467,000 per victim. A university investigation found Anderson abused students for decades. While the university knew about the misconduct as early as 1978, it allowed him to work for the school until 2003.
In a statement, OSU spokesman Ben Johnson said all the students who filed lawsuits had the opportunity to settle. The school, he said, is a “fundamentally different university today” and has committed more resources to address sexual misconduct on campus.
“Beginning in 2018, Ohio State sought to uncover and acknowledge the truth about Richard Strauss’ abuse and the university’s failure at the time to prevent it,” he said. “We offer our deepest regrets and apologies to all who experienced Strauss’ abuse.”
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