A federal judge Wednesday dismissed all of the outstanding lawsuits against Ohio State University that were filed by hundreds of former students and athletes who claim school officials failed to protect them from a sexual predator.
District Judge Michael H. Watson of Ohio’s Southern District said that there was no doubt that victims suffered “unspeakable sexual abuse” at hands of Dr. Richard Strauss and that coaches and other school officers were aware of it but did not stop him.
But Watson said the cases could not move forward because the statute of limitations for criminal rape cases in Ohio is 20 years and Strauss preyed on hundreds of men from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s. He died by suicide in 2005.
” If there is any way forward for Plaintiffs in their claim against Ohio State it begins with the legislature and not the judiciary,” Watson wrote. Steve Snyder-Hill,
Strauss victim, could not contain his anger.
“The judge just threw 300 survivors in a trash can,” Snyder-Hill said. A trash can with the OSU logo on it. “
Attorneys for 126 of the victims, represented by lawyer Scott Elliot Smith, the law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel and the nonprofit litigation and advocacy group Public Justice, vowed to appeal Watson’s ruling. They stated that
“OSU had spent decades delaying, hiding, or evading truth about its role as a concealer of the abuses that occurred on its watch.” Today’s decision punishes survivors who have been traumatized by this university’s deceitful campaign. The court’s decision is not final and should not be taken as a defeat for survivors on their journey to justice. “
A separate ruling was made by Watson refusing to withdraw from the proceedings, even though it became clear that his wife had a business relationship to the university. He also acknowledged that he went on a cruise sponsored by a group that raises money for a university-affiliated hospital while he was presiding over the cases. He stated in his decision that someone was trying to divert attention from the University’s cases by “redirecting focus to the Court.” “
“But by doing so, that person has made a mountain from several molehills,” Watson stated, without naming anyone.
48 victims were represented in court by Rocky Ratliff (an ex-Ohio State wrestler).
“He denied our request for recusal and tossed my case when we asked him to withdraw,” Ratliff stated.
Watson didn’t explain why he decided that the cases couldn’t continue due to the statute of limitations in his decision. Eric Weitz, a spokesperson for the Southern District, did not respond to this question.
Ohio State was under fire after Mike DiSabato, a whistleblower and former wrestler, made allegations that Strauss sexually abused him along with hundreds of others under the pretense of routine examinations. The school knew but did not do anything to stop it.
An independent investigation by the Perkins Coie law firm concluded in May 2019 that Strauss sexually abused at least 177 male athletes and students and that coaches and administrators knew about it for two decades but failed to stop him.
“The school released a statement Wednesday saying that it sought to discover and acknowledge the truth regarding Richard Strauss abuse and the university’s inability to stop it.
” We are forever grateful for the survivors of the Perkins Coie independent investigation. This investigation could not have been done without their strength, courage, and we offer our deepest condolences to those who were subject to Strauss’ abuse. “
The investigation resulted in a flood of lawsuits by Strauss victims. Watkins, who was nominated to the federal bench in 2004 by President George W. Bush, was appointed to the cases in July 2018.
Watson was questioned about his impartiality after NBC News inquired about the business ties that his wife Lori Leavitt Watson has to Ohio State .. The Flag Lady’s Flag Store in Columbus is owned by Watson. It sells the red-and silver Ohio State flags.
Watson said during a hastily convened court hearing that his wife has a licensing agreement that permits her to market university-authorized trademark merchandise and that neither of them has a “financial interest in the Ohio State University as defined by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. “
But Watson acknowledged that there may have been an appearance of impropriety. “
Watson, who previously acknowledged that he teaches a law class at Ohio State, gave the victims’ attorneys 10 days to weigh in on whether he should recuse himself from the contentious cases.
Before they could respond, photos surfaced of Watson and his wife taking part in a “Buckeye Cruise for Cancer” aboard the Mariner of the Seas, which cruised the Caribbean Feb. 23-29, 2019. Watson was assigned to the Strauss cases seven month earlier.
Although several victims’ lawyers asked Watson to resign, Ohio State insisted that he stay, citing his “model of judicial temperament and compassion towards plaintiffs, patience, commitment for equal justice and freedom from bias.” “
Watson said in the court papers that going on the cruise was not improper because it raises money for the university’s James Comprehensive Cancer Center, not the undergraduate university, and that he took part “in his individual capacity, not in his capacity as a federal judge. “