UM works to avoid courts to address sexual abuse claims against doctor
The University of Michigan is planning to develop a way outside the legal system to provide "more certain, faster relief" and privacy to those coming forward with claims of sexual misconduct against the late Dr. Robert E. Anderson.
The announcement, made Tuesday, comes two months after the first public accusation against Anderson, and drew skepticism from at least one lawyer who has filed dozens of lawsuits against the university. Meanwhile, a group of attorneys representing 100 more alleged victims filed legal notices that they intend to sue.
"We want to bring closure for those who have so bravely come forward to share their experiences," said UM President Mark Schlissel. "The university recognizes the harms he caused and is committed to developing a fair, just, timely and efficient resolution process — one that does not require drawn-out litigation.”
But former Attorney General Mike Cox said there already is a process in place to address the alleged victims of Anderson, one created by the U.S. and Michigan constitutions: the courts. He has filed 48 lawsuits against the university in federal court.
He said the timing of the university's announcement comes as he is waiting for UM to respond by Friday and Monday to his request to depose a key witness and respond to the first claims. Cox filed an emergency motion to depose and preserve testimony of 87-year-old Thomas Easthope, who was the UM associate director of students and tried to fire Anderson in 1979 amid reports that the physician was abusing men during medical care.
This, Cox said, is what is "now driving UM to do what it is trying to do: avoid public and court scrutiny for what it did to these survivors, when they were athletes, and more recently when UM tried covering up the horrific acts of Anderson for 19 months."
"It is only in a courtroom where the survivors (and the public) can learn the truth," Cox said. "It is in a courtroom, where survivors can compel witnesses through subpoenas to tell the full truth of Anderson’s abuse and UM’s cover-up of that abuse."
Hundreds of victims have come forward with allegations against Anderson, who served as the director of the University Health Service and team doctor for the UM athletic department while working at UM from the mid-1960s through 2003.
UM last week reported that 257 complaints regarding Anderson have been brought to the university as of April 23 through a hotline it established.
But not all lawyers representing former patients of Anderson have sued or said publicly that they plan to sue the university.
Among them is Colorado-based lawyer Parker Stinar, who has not filed any lawsuits.
"My goal has always been to hold the university accountable without resorting to public lawsuits, and to maintain my clients' confidentiality," he said. "We have reached the point where the university has no choice but to accept responsibility.
"The big question now is 'how much,'" Stinar said. "The university claims to be the 'leaders and best,' but will they compensate their victims like those of Penn State and Jerry Sandusky?"
Stinar was referring to a $109 million settlement that Penn State University reached in 2017 with victims of Sandusky, a former assistant football coach convicted of sexually assaulting boys.
The next year, Michigan State University reached an unprecedented $500 million settlement with sexual abuse victims of Larry Nassar.
UM has been speaking with lawyers like Stinar as it has taken steps to address the allegations against Anderson, who died in 2008.
“The university is eager to continue this dialogue as it assesses over the next few months the best approach to resolving these claims,” Schlissel said.
The goal of creating a process outside the court system to resolve claims is “to provide more certain and faster relief for the former patients of Anderson outside of the court system while preserving their privacy to the greatest extent possible,” said UM Regents Chair Ron Weiser, who has said he was abused by Anderson in the 1960s while a UM student.
But Cox said the 48 alleged victims he represents "had to go to the courts after meeting with UM’s lawyers, who did nothing to address the survivors’ claims except set up a fake helpline and try to further stall addressing the survivors’ claims."
UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said otherwise.
"Long ago the university committed to making the independent investigation report available to the public at the same time as it is received by the university," Fitzgerald said. "The university is completely committed to public disclosure."
Many UM officials have said privately they want to address the allegations against Anderson in a way that differs from how Michigan State handled sexual abuse allegations against the now-imprisoned Nassar. More than 18 months passed between the first public claims against Nassar and court hearings where 200 victims testified about Nassar's abuse over nine days in two courtrooms.
After the first public allegation against Anderson came from Robert Julian Stone in February, an 18-month-old UM police investigation emerged about multiple claims against Anderson going back decades and continuing after Easthope tried to remove him.
Since the first public allegation, UM has apologized more than once. It established a hotline, set up free counseling for victims and hired WilmerHale to conduct an independent investigation — an action that sparked some controversy. University officials have also reached out to nearly 7,000 former athletes as part of the investigation.
UM has set up 855-336-5900 as a call line for the investigation that is staffed 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Officials say accusers can also reach out to WilmerHale at 877-428-9667 or UofM@wilmerhale.com.
To access counseling, victims may call 888-961-9273.