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Supreme Court rebuffs OSU and enables the remaining sex abuse victims to sue

Ohio State University has already admitted it failed to protect students from predator doctor.
Ohio State University.
Ohio State University.Angie Wang / AP file

The Supreme Court handed Ohio State University a potentially costly defeat on Monday 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 victim Steve Snyder-Hill said "justice has prevailed."

"Colleges are not going to be able to cover up and lie about sexual assault then turn around and tell you it is too late (to sue), since they were so successful in covering it up,” Snyder-Hill said.

Lawyers for the survivors said OSU had "attempted to run out the clock on its accountability."

"We look forward to returning to the trial court, having our clients’ stories heard, and gathering further evidence of OSU’s widespread cover-up of Dr. Strauss’s serial predation," the statement from Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, Scott Elliot Smith, LPA, and Public Justice, said.

Ohio State expressed disappointment the Supreme Court decided not to review the case but said "the university remains committed to supporting survivors" and has already paid out $60 million in settlement money to 296 victims.

"Ohio State is a fundamentally different university today than when Strauss was employed and over the past 20 years has committed substantial resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct," OSU said in a statement.

Shortly after the decision, lawyers for Strauss' victims said they intend to return to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio to press their case against OSU.

“We plan to depose every OSU employee alleged to have known about Strauss’s abuse, including the employees named in the complaints,” said Public Justice Students’ Civil Rights Project Director Adele Kimmel.

Among those employees mentioned in the complaints is Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who was the assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State from 1986 to 1994 and who has been accused of failing to stop Strauss from sexually molesting the student-athletes he helped coach.

Jordan has repeatedly denied any knowledge of what Strauss was doing.

"Our statement has never changed," Jordan spokesman Russell Dye, said in an email. "Congressman Jordan never saw or heard of any abuse, and if he had, he would have dealt with it."

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 like hernia checks. The statute of limitation for criminal rape cases in Ohio is 20 years. Strauss died by suicide in 2005.

But 6th U.S. 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.

Image: Richard Strauss
Dr. Richard Strauss in his 1978 employment application from Ohio State University's personnel files.Ohio State University via AP file

“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 that the plaintiffs said 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.”

In the complaint to the Supreme Court, two former Ohio State wrestlers identified as John Doe 18 and John Doe 23 said Jordan was aware that the athletes referred to Strauss as "Dr. Cough."

The coaching staff showed “no concern despite the athletes’ frequent comments about genital exams,” the complaint states.

Also, when the wrestlers complained about Strauss and other strange men leering at them in the showers, Jordan and head coach Russ Hellickson told them to “pretend they were not there.”

“Because Coach Hellickson, Assistant Coach Jordan, and the athletic department treated Dr. Strauss’s behavior as acceptable, John Doe 23 believed there was nothing he could do to address his discomfort with Dr. Strauss,” the complaint states.

NBC News has reached out to Hellickson for comment.