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Since allegations of sexual abuse against late University of Michigan athletic physician Robert Anderson were first publicized in February 2020, hundreds of individual lawsuits and two class-action lawsuits have been filed against the University and the Board of Regents by survivors.
The University’s Division of Public Safety and Security’s annual security and fire safety report from 2020 said that 97.7% of the total 2110 reports of rape and fondling that year stemmed from Anderson. The allegations against Anderson — from more than 950 people total — may comprise the largest scale of sexual abuse by a single person in U.S. history.
The Michigan Daily broke down the progress of these lawsuits, as well as other current actions by survivors to demand accountability and acknowledgement from the University.
The survivors — the plaintiffs of the lawsuits — and their attorneys have been in court-ordered mediation with the University since October 2020. Little is known of the status of the mediation process or expected resolution date, since the mediation process takes place outside the courtroom and public records are not available. There are also strict confidentiality measures in place that bar all parties from discussing updates with the press.
Jonathan Vaughn, a former University running back, is a survivor of Anderson currently leading a protest and sit-in outside University President Mark Schlissel’s house. Vaughn expressed frustration at the nearly 14-month long mediation process. In an interview with The Daily, Vaughn compared this process to sexual misconduct allegations against former U-M Provost Martin Philbert, which was settled within a year of the University being made aware of the allegations.
“(The case) really hasn’t gone anywhere,” Vaughn said. “(It’s been) a lot of game-planning by Michigan, the office of President, the Board of Regents as well as the attorneys, which we understand. That’s kind of their strategy. We understand it, but that doesn’t mean we accept it. There really hasn’t been any substantive negotiation at all.”
While The Daily is unable to verify these claims due to the private nature of the mediation, public records and interviews prior to the start of mediation shed some light on how the litigation is progressing.
Individual lawsuits against the University
Thousands of accusations of abuse by Anderson have been lodged since attorney Michael Cox filed the first claim against the University and the Board of Regents on March 4, 2020, on behalf of plaintiff “John Doe MC-1.”
In the last year and a half, more than 850 individual lawsuits against the University — collectively referred to as a mass tort case — were filed by 60 attorneys. The individual cases were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan and assigned to Judge Victoria A. Roberts.
The court named attorneys Michael Cox, Mick Grewal, Richard Schulte and Steve Drew to lead the mass tort case. The court also designated a 12-attorney steering committee — attorney Parker Stinar confirmed his membership on the committee to The Daily. Stinar is representing approximately 200 plaintiffs.
Cox wrote in an email to The Daily that the group of 60 attorneys are “working together as a group or coalition in negotiating a settlement through mediation with the University.”
Cox is representing over 100 plaintiffs suing the University, including Vaughn. In an interview with The Daily, Vaughn said he connected with Cox through a referral from a former teammate three to four days after the first public story on the Anderson case. Vaughn said he decided to use his name in the lawsuit in order to humanize the experiences presented.
“I didn’t look at it as bravery,” Vaughn said. “My name’s not John Doe and you’re not going to refer to me as John Doe. I think that is the number one tactic that massive brands and powerful people use to keep their brands out in front. When you’re faceless, nameless and voiceless, the general public can’t really identify with someone that’s anonymous.”
In April 2020, Cox and attorney David Shea submitted an emergency motion to depose Thomas Easthope, the former associate vice president for the Division of Student Life who worked with Anderson at the University in the 1970s and 80s. The deposition, a court process held to collect evidence, occurred in July 2020.
During the deposition, Easthope said he fired Anderson in 1979 following complaints of sexual abuse, but his boss, Vice President for Student Services Henry Johnson, rehired Anderson. Anderson remained at the University until his retirement in 2003 — he died in 2008.
Cox emphasized how much this deposition revealed about the University’s efforts to hide Anderson’s abuse.
“The deposition of Tom Easthope demonstrated the long-running comprehensive cover-up of Dr. Anderson’s predatory conduct at the highest levels of UM’s administration,” Cox wrote.
A lawsuit from March 2020 also alleged that Assistant Athletic Director Paul Schmidt knew of Anderson’s abuse while Anderson was employed by the University but did not speak out against him.
In May and September 2020, the University’s defense counsel, Jones Day, submitted a motion to dismiss the mass tort case entirely, citing Anderson’s death in 2008. Day also sought to dismiss the case due to the fact that more than three decades had passed since some of the abuse allegedly occurred.
In March 2020, the University hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an independent investigation into the Anderson allegations. WilmerHale is the same firm used to conduct an investigation into allegations against Philbert.
As part of the investigation, letters were sent out to around 300,000 alumni, asking them to provide information to WilmerHale. During the investigation, Judge Roberts ordered the University to clarify to the alumni notified about the Anderson abuse that there was ongoing litigation regarding the allegations. In May 2021, WilmerHale released its report, which detailed decades of abuse by Anderson and attempts by the University administration and athletic department to suppress these allegations.
In the WilmerHale report, Schmidt told the firm that he held Anderson “in high regard” and “would have given Dr. Anderson the benefit of the doubt” if a student raised concerns of Anderson’s examinations.
Class action lawsuits against the University
The first class-action lawsuit was filed March 9, 2020, by lead attorney Annika Martin of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, along with law firms Sauder Schelkopf and the Miller Law Firm.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of all survivors of Anderson’s abuse under the representative plaintiff and anonymous Anderson survivor, John Doe. It was amended on Sept. 10, 2020, to include another representative plaintiff and anonymous survivor, Richard Roe, in addition to the information gathered during the deposition of Easthope.
In an interview with The Daily in September 2020, Martin spoke of the differences between class-action cases and mass tort cases. Martin said individual cases are limited to monetary settlements and often provoke a first-to-come-forward mentality among survivors, highlighting the compensation disparities between the first group of survivors of Michigan State University Doctor Larry Nassar to come forward as opposed to later groups.
“I have to take responsibility for the entire class, including people who have not come forward to file a lawsuit,“ Martin said. “And one of the other rules for a class action is that class members have to be treated equitably amongst each other.”
Stinar, who represents plaintiffs in the mass tort case, said he does not believe class-action cases are the best avenue for achieving justice for Anderson survivors. He said individual cases are the best way to ensure every survivor is represented.
“For survivors of sexual abuse, who all experience their own individual traumas, physical as well as emotional, I disagree with a class-action, which essentially tries to lump in all survivors of abuse under the same action,” Stinar said.
Martin explained that class-action cases can also seek institutional change as well as financial settlements. Martin and her team filed a second class-action lawsuit on May 20, 2021, on behalf of current and future UMich students led by LSA senior Josephine Graham. This suit aims to enact policy changes to prevent future sexual assaults on campus.
The filing states that these changes are needed because of the “(University’s) failure to have or enforce appropriate policies and procedures to prevent, and sufficiently respond to, sexual violence on campus.”
In July 2020, the University introduced the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office to replace the Office of Institutional Equity. As part of the new unit, new procedures to report and address allegations of sexual abuse were outlined. The office will still be led by Tamiko Strickman, who faced criticism after it was alleged that she mishandled cases of sexual misconduct while working at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The most recent U-M sexual misconduct policy revision, made effective in Oct. 2021., replaced the original umbrella policy to include more concrete definitions of misconduct, clarify ways to report misconduct and outline procedures for addressing sexual and gender-based misconduct allegations.
Eli Merren, a representative from Michigan Students Against Sexual Assault and LSA freshman, spoke about the organization’s goal for justice for Anderson survivors regardless of lawsuit type.
“Whether that be class action lawsuits, whether that be individual lawsuits, we should explore any avenue to achieve this representation for the victims, finding justice in whatever form that may be,” Merren said.
Daily Staff Reporter Elissa Welle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that allegations were made in the lawsuit against Assistant Athletic Director Paul Schmidt, and Schmidt‘s comments in the WilmerHale report were also updated. Clarifications were also made in regards to the introduction of the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office.