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Monday, December 9, 2019

Unclear whether Ohio AG will get involved in mass litigation against Ohio State stemming from Strauss era

Federal Court

By Jon Campisi | Nov 22, 2019

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University Hall at Ohio State University | Cropped photo from Wikimedia Commons/Nheyob

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Legal Newsline) – Forty-three male sexual assault survivors who allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of former Ohio State University physician Richard Strauss are now suing over what they claim was a failure on the part of the university to inform and protect students from what the lawsuit terms a “monster.”

The federal civil rights complaint, which was filed Nov. 7 at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, alleges the university allowed Strauss to perpetuate, at last count, "1,429 instances of fondling and 47 instances of rape."

“This is perhaps the greatest sex abuse scandal in American history. It is without question the greatest scandal in the history of American higher education,” reads the 166-page complaint, which was filed by Columbus-based attorneys Scott E. Smith and Brian R. Noethlich, alongside lawyers from Washington, D.C.-based Public Justice PC.

The named plaintiffs in the case are James Khalil, Hugh (Joseph) Dyer, Jerrold L. Solomon, Joseph Bechtel and Michael Murphy. The remaining plaintiffs are dozens of unnamed former students.

The recent lawsuit is the latest in a string of complaints against the university, which had released a report this past spring detailing the results of an independent investigation that it commissioned looking into the decades-old claims involving Strauss, who was employed by Ohio State University from 1978 to 1998, the time period during which the alleged abuses occurred. He worked primarily as a doctor with the school’s athletic department and at the student health center.

The school’s investigation, which took place during a year-long period from April 2018 to this past spring and was handled by the law firm Perkins Coie, found the former athletic doctor indeed “sexually abused at least 177 male student-patients he was charged with treating as a university physician,” this month’s lawsuit states.

The acts that Strauss allegedly committed upon the male students ranged from episodes of fondling to rape. He also apparently showered with male athletes and caused a general air of discomfort in locker rooms.  

The university has said that Strauss voluntarily resigned his position in 1998 with emeritus status. He committed suicide in California in 2005.

Ohio State University President Michael V. Drake sent an email to students, faculty and staff on May 17, in which he called the findings “shocking and painful to comprehend."

“On behalf of the university, we offer our profound regret and sincere apologies to each person who endured Strauss’ abuse,” Drake said in the email, which was made publicly available online. “Our institution’s fundamental failure at the time to prevent this abuse was unacceptable – as were the inadequate efforts to thoroughly investigate complaints raised by students and staff members.”

During the investigation, former coaches and athletic trainers stated that they had been well aware of rumors and complaints involving Strauss, and that some students said the abuse perpetuated by Strauss was so widely known that they just assumed it was simply accepted by employees at the university, according to news reports of the Perkins Coie investigation.

The university reportedly took disciplinary action against Strauss back in the mid-1990s following student complaints, but Strauss nevertheless went on to open up an off-campus private men’s health clinic nearby where he reportedly continued to carry out his abuse and assault, all the while remaining as a tenured faculty professor at Ohio State University, reports state.

Prior to this month’s federal civil rights complaint, nearly 50 other former students had filed lawsuits against Ohio State University stemming from alleged abuse by Strauss. Many of those cases were directed into court-ordered mediation, but no status updates have been reported thus far.

In an email interview, Benjamin Johnson, director of media relations for the university, would only say that the university is “committed to a fair resolution,” and that the school is “actively participating in good faith in the mediation process directed by the federal court.”

Johnson also told Legal Newsline that the university has implemented many additional safeguards in the decades since Strauss left his job, and that the university is “committed to appropriately addressing Strauss’ abuse from decades ago."

“Richard Strauss’ actions are reprehensible, and we remain deeply concerned for all those who have been affected by Strauss,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson did not respond to questions from Legal Newsline regarding whether the university planned to support Ohio House Bill 249, which would eliminate the statute of limitations for Strauss’ alleged victims relating to litigation stemming from the decades-old abuse.

Some also question whether Ohio Attorney General David Yost would get involved, perhaps helping to try to resolve some of the claims in the case.

Legal Newsline reached out to three members of the attorney general’s communications team seeking an interview and/or comments about what Yost may be doing, or possibly plans to do, to help resolve the claims, but messages were not returned as of press deadline.  

Some former alleged Strauss victims were offered an opportunity to speak to the Ohio State University Board of Trustees during a recent meeting, but the board members stressed that they were simply there to listen, and not engage in dialogue, because of the ongoing litigation and mediation, according to a Nov. 12 report in The Columbus Dispatch.

“We remain engaged in an ongoing mediation directed by the court, and the judge has instructed all of us to restrict our communication to the mediation process, which we believe is the more appropriate venue for continued discussion,” trustees board secretary Jessica Eveland had told the alleged victims, according to the publication.

Trustee Abigail Wexner, wife of Les Wexner, the CEO of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands, recently made the news relating to her and her husband’s apparent connection to the late Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy, politically connected hedge fund manager who was arrested this past July on federal charges relating to the sex trafficking of underage women in Florida and New York.

Les Wexner had previously been a client of Epstein, but Wexner was said to have distanced himself following the sex trafficking allegations, according to news reports.

Epstein was found dead in his prison cell in August, and while his death was officially ruled a suicide, his lawyers have disputed this finding.

In October, the Washington Post reported that an artist named Maria Farmer, who had been commissioned to work on a couple pieces that would be used in the 1996 Jack Nicholson film "As Good As It Gets," says she was sexually molested by Epstein and an associate while staying at the Wexner’s sprawling 336-acre property in New Albany, Ohio.

In that report, Farmer said she was offered the use of the home by Epstein, with Les Wexner OK'ing the decision, in which to do her artwork. Farmer was quoted in the Post article saying she never met Lex Wexner, and that she had only spoken on the phone to Abigail Wexner, who, along with a security team, monitored the property.

Abigail is currently serving on the Ohio State University Board of Trustees, a position she began in July 2014 and which will end in May 2023. She had been appointed by Gov. John Kasich.   

Johnson, the media relations director at Ohio State University, did not respond to questions from Legal Newsline about Abigail Wexner’s position as a university trustee, her ties to Farmer or whether or not the school had any concerns about her continuing to serve given the allegations that were raised in the Post article about her and her husband’s possible past history with Epstein.   

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