The Supreme Court handed Ohio State University a potentially costly defeat by refusing to reconsider a lower court ruling that said former students should be allowed to sue it for failing to protect them from a sexual predator decades ago.
The decision came almost a year after the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that another federal judge erred in 2021 when he ruled that the statute of limitations in the case against Dr. Richard Strauss had run out.
Strauss, who worked for OSU, was accused of preying on hundreds of men who attended the university from the 1970s through the 1990s, mostly under the guise of performing medical exams. The statute of limitation for criminal rape cases in Ohio is 20 years. Strauss died by suicide in 2005.
But Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore said in the panel’s September 2022 ruling that most of the men didn’t realize until 2018 that they were sexual abuse victims.
“At the time of the abuse, they were teenagers and young adults and did not know what was medically appropriate,” Moore wrote in her opinion. “Strauss gave pretextual and false medical explanations for the abuse.”
Moore added that many of the former students believed, at the time of the alleged abuse, that because Strauss’ “conduct was so widely known and talked about, it could not have been abuse.”
“Similarly, many believed that Ohio State would not have made Strauss the athletic team doctor unless his examinations were legitimate, and thus, that the conduct was medically appropriate even if it was uncomfortable.”
Moore also noted that it wasn’t until 2018 when the plaintiffs say they became aware that OSU administrators had allegedly known for years about the abuse but failed to stop it.
So the statute of limitations clock should have started when the alleged victims learned that administrators were aware of Strauss’ conduct “and failed to respond appropriately.”
That was a direct rebuke of a September 2021 ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson of the Southern District of Ohio.
OSU had already agreed to a $40.9 million settlement with 162 Strauss victims in 2020 and admitted it had failed to protect them when Watson dismissed all the remaining lawsuits against the university.
In doing so, Watson said there was no question that the victims “suffered unspeakable sexual abuse” at the hands of Strauss and that the athletic coaches and other school officials knew about it and did not stop him.
But Watson was also criticized for refusing to recuse himself from the Strauss cases after disclosing that his wife has had a business relationship with OSU. It was a question from an NBC News reporter that prompted him to make the admission during a September 2021 hearing.
The school found itself on the defensive in 2018 after former OSU wrestler Mike DiSabato and several other former wrestlers came forward with allegations that the team doctor molested them during physicals.
A year later, an independent investigation concluded that coaches and athletic administrators at the university knew for two decades that Strauss was molesting male athletes and other students but failed to sound the alarm or stop him.
“Many of the students felt that Strauss’ behavior was an ‘open secret,’ as it appeared to them that their coaches, trainers and other team physicians were fully aware of Strauss’ activities, and yet few seemed inclined to do anything to stop it,” investigators from the law firm Perkins Coie wrote in a 180-page report.
The investigators reported that “Strauss sexually abused at least 177 male student-patients.”
Lawrence Hurley contributed.