A divided federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday that former students who were sexually abused by a longtime Ohio State University doctor can sue the institution over its handling of the situation. The 2-to-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturns a federal judge’s 2021 ruling that said the plaintiffs’ Title IX claims against the university were no longer valid under the statute of limitations.
Investigators found in 2019 that Dr. Richard Strauss abused more than 200 male students and athletes during his time as a physician at Ohio State and suffered little in the way of consequences. Ohio State has reached settlements worth tens of millions of dollars with many of the plaintiffs, but some sued the university under the federal law barring sex discrimination in education programs, alleging that it had done too little to protect them.
Federal judges that same year dismissed two lawsuits seeking to address the abuse survivors’ claims, saying they had missed the window for seeking legal redress.
In the appeals court’s majority ruling Wednesday, two judges said that the lower court started the statute-of-limitations clock too early, and that the plaintiffs adequately alleged, at this early stage in the case, that “they did not know and could not reasonably have known that Ohio State injured them” until 2018, when the abuse claims first became public. “The plaintiffs plausibly allege that experiencing distress—even extreme distress—does not mean that they knew or should have known that they were abused,” the majority wrote. “The plaintiffs plausibly allege a decades-long cover up. Given these plausible allegations, the plaintiffs adequately allege that they could not have reasonably discovered Ohio State’s conduct.”
The decision reverses the lower court’s decision and directs the judge to consider the plaintiffs’ claims.
The panel’s third judge vigorously dissented, arguing that the majority’s ruling “effectively nullifies any statute of limitations for Title IX claims based on sexual harassment.”