COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State University is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider questions about the law known as Title IX in a case that affects whether more than 230 men can proceed with lawsuits against the school over decades-old sexual abuse by a team doctor, the late Richard Strauss.
The petition filed Tuesday urges the high court to hear the case and review two aspects: When does the clock start ticking on the legal time limit for filing Title IX claims, which in this case are about the university's alleged “deliberate indifference” toward sexual harassment? And does the right to bring such claims apply to people who aren't students or employees there, such as fans attending football games or visitors touring campus?
The school argues the divided appeals court that revived the unsettled lawsuits against OSU reached the wrong conclusions on both elements.
“Together, these rulings arm virtually anyone who has visited Ohio State over the past 40 years with a potential Title IX claim today,” and that result wasn’t what Congress intended in establishing the law in 1972, the university’s legal team wrote in the petition to the high court. They maintain “the questions presented are purely legal and thus transcend the particular circumstances alleged here.”
The abuse survivors and their lawyers see it differently, accusing the university of adding to their trauma with each new round of legal appeals.
“And even though it’s on procedural grounds, to the survivors it appears that Ohio State is trying to avoid accountability for allowing them to be sexually abused," said Steve Estey, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs seeking to take their lawsuits to trial.
The university has repeatedly offered public apologies to those Strauss harmed and has reached over $60 million in settlements with at least 296 survivors. It eventually sought to have the remaining unsettled cases dismissed, arguing that the time limit for the claims — the applicable two-year statute of limitations in Ohio — began during the doctor's tenure and had long passed.
Remaining plaintiffs have argued that they filed timely claims and that the clock didn’t start until allegations became public in 2018, because they didn’t have reason before then to believe the university had enabled or covered up the doctor’s behavior.
The appeals court's agreement with that, combined with its finding that several plaintiffs could bring such Title IX claims even though they weren't OSU students or employees when the alleged abuse occurred, wrongly expanded the scope of Title IX in ways that are problematic and potentially very costly for all sorts of schools under that law, Ohio State contends. Its petition also says a threat of Title IX lawsuits based on decades-old allegations might deter schools from investigating such claims.
It noted that the decision from the Cincinnati-based Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals about when the clock started conflicts with conclusions from federal appeals courts elsewhere, and said that points to the need for the nation's high court to weigh in.
“We can all agree that the underlying abuse here was reprehensible, but the Supreme Court has to resolve these fundamental legal issues for everybody going forward, without regard to the underlying allegations or facts here,” said Gregory Garre, an attorney representing OSU.
In a separate statement, the university said its request to the court doesn't question the plaintiffs' accounts of abuse or diminish its commitment to supporting survivors.
But the request is sure to frustrate plaintiffs who contend Ohio State hasn’t dealt with them fairly. Meanwhile, the unsettled lawsuits remain paused for months more as the plaintiffs' attorneys decide whether to file a response to the petition and then wait to see whether the case will be in the limited number the Supreme Court decides to hear.
The men are among hundreds of former student-athletes and other alumni who say they were abused by Strauss during his two decades at the school, and that university officials failed to stop him despite knowing about complaints as far back as the late 1970s, very early in the doctor's two decades there. Many of them allege Strauss abused them during medical exams at campus athletic facilities, a student health center, his home and an off-campus clinic.
He died in 2005. No one has publicly defended him.