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The summary disposition for the civil lawsuit against former University of Michigan lecturer Bruce Conforth was held in Detroit on Wednesday. The lawsuit, which was filed in the Michigan Court of Claims, names the University, the Board of Regents and Conforth as defendants. The plaintiffs, who are eight survivors of Conforth’s sexual assault, allege that the University is liable for the abuse.
The summary judgment hearing was held on a motion from the defendants to dismiss the case against the University and the Board of Regents.
In January, the survivors first took legal action by filing a complaint with the Washtenaw County Circuit Court, alleging that the University failed to protect its students from a predatory University employee. Sexual assault allegations against Conforth, a former American culture lecturer, first publicly surfaced in 2021, four years after his retirement in 2017.
Brian Schwartz, the attorney representing the defendants, argued for the dismissal of complaints filed against the University. The center of Schwartz’s argument was against the fraudulent concealment claims brought by the plaintiffs who allege that the University intentionally failed to disclose previous assault allegations against Conforth to prevent future cases. Schwartz said no fraudulent concealment was committed by the University because the victims would have known that they were assaulted as soon as the assault occurred.
“There is no (concealment) because plaintiffs knew they were abused by Bruce Conforth when they described those allegations,” Schwartz said. “They had everything they knew to file that claim the instant it happened.”
Schwartz said the University was not liable for a lack of action taken against Conforth because only three of the victims reported to the University prior to the lawsuit and thus failed to provide proper notice.
“It’s an element of (the plaintiffs’) claim, they have to prove that they provided notice to the University and the University failed to take responsive action,” Schwartz said. “If they don’t provide notice to the University … the University is not going to be liable.”
Daniel Barnett, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, countered by saying victims are not always immediately aware that they have been assaulted. Barnett cited a previous ruling by Judge Timothy Connors in a suit filed with the Washtenaw County Circuit Court that denied the defendants’ motion for summary disposition. Barnett also cited prior knowledge that Conforth would send anonymous emails to female students encouraging them to engage with Conforth’s sexual advances.
“(The plaintiffs) knew that they had sexual relations with Bruce Conforth, they didn’t know they were sexually assaulted,” Barnett said. “What Judge Conners held is, it doesn’t seem like (plaintiffs) knew they were sexually assaulted, because they didn’t know that it was defendant Conforth forcing them to go have sex with himself as part of this religious organization under threat of harm.”
Schwartz said he believed the claims against the University in the Court of Claims should be dismissed.
“We believe all the claims should be dismissed,” Schwartz said. “(Plaintiffs) can proceed with their claims in front of Judge Connors … but we believe the claims against the University should be dismissed.”
Conforth survivor and plaintiff Isabelle Brourman spoke with The Michigan Daily following the hearing and said she was disheartened by the defendants’ claims that the University was not liable for Conforth abusing students, citing the “Last Chance” agreement in which the University had outlined requirements for Conforth in order to avoid being terminated.
“The thing that I’m not surprised about but most disappointed in is the University’s argument that they are not tied to Conforth’s actions even though they did know of prior assault (allegations) against him and even though they did issue a Last Chance agreement, which concedes that they did know that he was a dangerous character,” Brourman said. “I’m hoping that that foreseeability is strong enough to carry us successfully with the judge.”
Jon Vaughn, survivor of former athletics doctor Robert Anderson and former U-M football player, was also in attendance at the hearing. In an interview with The Daily, Vaughn said the University has a pattern of protecting perpetrators.
“If you look at (the University’s) history of leadership, at the Board of Regents’, as well as the presidents’, they continually speak about and announce all of the programs that they say have been put in place to empower survivors to come forth to speak out,” Vaughn said. “But it’s a black hole. There’s usually no progress, and you have to then … fight an uphill battle.”
In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said the University will wait for a ruling.
Daily Staff Reporter Irena Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.