WASHINGTON (WCMH) – After more than five years, hundreds of pages of legal arguments, millions spent in litigation and at least two deaths, the sexual abuse survivors of former Ohio State University physician Richard Strauss will be taking the university to trial.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied Ohio State’s request to decide whether the survivors could sue the university for covering up and enabling of Strauss’ decades of sexual abuse. The petition was the university’s last chance to prevent fact-finding from occurring in the case – meaning for the first time since a lawsuit was filed, survivors will be able to testify and university administrators will be questioned.
With its order – which, as is typical, comes with no explanation – the nation’s highest court has decided not to consider Ohio State’s claims that survivors lost their ability to sue because the abuse occurred decades ago.
“For decades, OSU has attempted to run out the clock on its accountability and protect its reputation through a series of actions aimed at hiding its role in perpetuating the serial sexual abuse that OSU students and other experienced on the university’s watch,” survivors’ attorneys said in a statement. “Now, after more than four decades, we are one step closer to justice for the survivors and to bringing about meaningful change for current and future generations of OSU students.”
Strauss was an Ohio State physician and varsity team sports doctor from 1978 to ’98. During his tenure, he sexually abused and harassed hundreds of victims — nearly all men — under the guise of medical exams.
Strauss died by suicide in 2005. Since 2018, more than 400 victims and their families have filed lawsuits against Ohio State for its failure to prevent and address the abuse, which an independent investigation found in 2019 that university officials were aware of as early as 1979.
Ohio State has settled with 296 survivors for $60 million since 2020, including through an individual settlement program that required plaintiffs to agree to not disparage the “university’s handling of this matter” since the sexual abuse became public.
An Ohio State spokesperson said in an email that Ohio State was “disappointed” by the court’s decision to not review the case.
“Ohio State is a fundamentally different university today than when Strauss was employed and over the past 20 years has committed substantial resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct,” the spokesperson said.
Steve Snyder-Hill, a survivor and lead plaintiff in the case appealed to the Supreme Court, said in a statement that he was “in shock” that the cases would proceed with discovery and trial.
“Justice has prevailed,” Snyder-Hill said. “Colleges are not going to be able to cover up and lie about sexual assault then turn around and tell you it is too late.”
Title IX and the statute of limitations
The university appealed the case to the Supreme Court in March after the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rehear the case en banc, or in a full panel. The Sixth Circuit agreed with survivors that the lower court originally assigned to the case erred when it threw out the cases for an expired statute of limitations.
Survivors sued the university under Title IX, claiming that Ohio State’s “deliberate indifference” to Strauss’ abuse enabled him to abuse and harass hundreds of students and student-athletes. In every lawsuit against it, the university argued that the statute of limitations – the expiration date for the ability to file a legal complaint – should have run out decades ago.
The statute of limitations on civil sexual abuse claims is two years in Ohio, and the university and survivors have spent years arguing over when the clock started ticking.
In Ohio State’s opinion, the clock ran out two years after the abuse occurred. It needs to have ended then, the university argued in its petition, because otherwise, academic institutions would face an “onslaught” of civil suits “based on decades-old allegations.”
“If the Sixth Circuit’s decision is left to stand, there is essentially no limit on the stale claims that could be brought,” Ohio State’s petition read. “No matter the urge to address past wrongs, no system of true justice can operate on such terms.”
Nearly two dozen universities filed an amicus brief in support of Ohio State, including the University of Michigan, Bowling Green State University, Cleveland State University, the University of Dayton, Purdue University, the Texas A&M University system and the University of Toledo.
But the vast majority of survivors have asserted that they did not know Strauss’ medically unnecessary exams and inappropriate sexual questions constituted abuse. Their legal argument further hinged on the idea that even for the few who were aware that Strauss sexually abused them, they had no way to know that Ohio State spent years covering it up through dishonest performance evaluations, discarded complaints and destroyed records.
Survivors have maintained – and the Sixth Circuit agreed – that the limitations period began in 2018, when a survivor first came forward about Strauss’ sexual abuse.
“Ohio State fearmongers that the Sixth Circuit’s holding will have bad policy consequences,” survivors’ reply to the petition read. “In doing so, it overstates the impact of the case: Most Title IX claims are quickly discoverable because most schools don’t engage in ‘decades-long cover-ups.’”
With the Supreme Court’s denial of the petition, the case will go back to the original court – to the judge who survivors once argued should have recused himself for his financial ties to the university. The Sixth Circuit ruled in February that the judge, Michael Watson, did not need to recuse himself.
From there, Ohio State may make new defenses ahead of potential depositions and a trial — or offer a larger settlement amount to avoid continued litigation.
“We’re interested in getting resolution for all of the sexual survivors, whatever form that takes,” Scott Smith, an attorney representing about 100 of the survivors, said. “And if OSU finally wants to become reasonable to resolve these cases, we’re willing to listen.”