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Lawsuits against Ohio State alleging sex abuse by team doctor can move forward

A federal appeals court overturned a judge's decision to dismiss complaints filed by former students and athletes who say the late Richard Strauss was a sexual predator.

Unsettled lawsuits filed by former students and athletes accusing Ohio State University of failing to protect them from a sexual predator for over two decades can continue to trial, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The three-judge panel wrote in a 2-1 decision Wednesday that another judge “erred” when he ruled a year ago that the statute of limitations in the case against Dr. Richard Strauss had effectively run out. Strauss is accused of preying on hundreds of men who attended Ohio State from the 1970s to the late 1990s under the guise of performing medical exams; the statute of limitation for criminal rape cases in the state is 20 years.

Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore, however, argued that most plaintiffs didn’t realize until 2018, when Strauss’ alleged conduct became public, that they could consider themselves victims of sexual abuse. Strauss died by suicide in 2005.

“At the time of the abuse, they were teenagers and young adults and did not know what was medically appropriate,” Moore said in her opinion. “Strauss gave pretextual and false medical explanations for the abuse.”

Moore added that many students believed that “because the 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.”

The judge also noted that it wasn’t until 2018 when the plaintiffs say they became aware that Ohio State administrators had allegedly known for years about the abuse and allowed it to perpetuate.

“The plaintiffs’ allegations that they lacked reason to know that Ohio State injured them are plausible,” Moore wrote in the opinion, adding that the clock should start for the statute of limitations whenever the plaintiffs knew or should have known that Ohio State administrators were aware of Strauss’ conduct “and failed to respond appropriately.”

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Ralph Guy Jr. said that not all of the plaintiffs are claiming that the sexual abuse occurred during routine medical exams and that some knew they had been “injured” by Strauss, even if they didn’t recognize it as sexual abuse.

“Under the discovery rule, it is irrelevant whether plaintiffs labeled Strauss’s conduct as ‘sexual abuse,’” Guy wrote. “It is ‘discovery of the injury’ alone that ‘starts the clock.’”

An Ohio State spokesman said Thursday that “we are reviewing the decision.” After U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson of the Southern District of Ohio dismissed the lawsuits last year, the school offered “our deepest regrets and apologies to all who experienced Strauss’ abuse.”

Watson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday left with his chambers about the appeals court’s opinion that he had “erred.”

Key moments in the Strauss cases

  • 2018: Former Ohio State wrestler Mike DiSabato collects accusations of abuse against Strauss and turns it over to the university.
  • 2020: Ohio State agrees to settle some of the lawsuits filed by hundreds of men who alleged sexual abuse by Strauss.
  • 2021: U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson, who is overseeing the unsettled lawsuits, admits that he failed to disclose that his wife had a licensing agreement with the university to sell OSU flags following an NBC News inquiry. Days later, Watson dismisses those suit saying the statute of limitations had run out.
  • Sept. 14: A federal appeals court in Ohio rules that Watson "erred" and the outstanding suits can move ahead toward trial.

The university came under scrutiny in 2018 after a whistleblowing former wrestler, Mike DiSabato, went public with allegations that Strauss had sexually abused him and hundreds of other athletes. The school commissioned an independent investigation by the Perkins Coie law firm, which 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.

In 2020, the university agreed to resolve a dozen related lawsuits by 162 men in a $40.9 million settlement and also agreed to commit resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct.

“The university of decades ago failed these individuals — our students, alumni and members of the Buckeye community,” university President Michael V. Drake said in a statement at the time. “Nothing can undo the wrongs of the past, but we must do what we can today to work toward restorative justice.”

Watson was also the focus of criticism after he refused to recuse himself from the Strauss cases after disclosing that his wife has had a business relationship with the university. It was a question from an NBC News reporter that prompted him to make the admission during a September 2021 hearing, according to a spokesman for the Southern District of Ohio.

At the time, he said, neither he nor his wife had a “financial interest in the Ohio State University as defined by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges or as described in the advisory ethics opinions interpreting the code. Therefore, my wife’s business dealings with the university do not ethically mandate my recusal from cases involving the university,” according to a transcript of the hearing. He added that “the appearance of impropriety may be implicated.”

One of the original plaintiffs in the case against Ohio State, Steven Snyder-Hill, applauded the appeals court’s overturning of Watson’s decision, telling NBC affiliate WCMH in Columbus that it sends a signal that “you can’t get away with this.”

“You would be rewarding OSU for hiding this and concealing it if you let them make this argument that ‘it’s just been too long,’” Snyder-Hill said. “I know that they’re Goliath, and we’re David. But you know what? David just won today.”