Legal experts: MSU didn’t violate Open Meetings Act
When Michigan State University agreed Tuesday to reach a settlement with the victims of former sports doctor Larry Nassar, the only people aware of the decision were MSU officials.
The first time the public learned of the settlement was when the university announced it Wednesday.
Despite the lack of public oversight, the school’s action didn’t violate open-government laws, said legal experts.
A public group may consult privately with its attorney about pending litigation if doing so publicly would hurt the group financially during the litigation, according to the state Open Meetings Act.
Among the MSU officials discussing the settlement during a conference call Tuesday night were Robert Young Jr., special counsel, interim President John Engler, and members of the Board of Trustees.
James Stewart, an attorney for The Detroit News, said the fact the phone conversation could adversely impact MSU if it was held publicly showed the school was in compliance with the law.
“Is it a technical violation, maybe, but I have a hard time getting too worked up about it,” he said.
Another attorney, Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University, said he wasn’t positive, but the fact that Young was part of the conversation could allow the school to claim it as privileged communication.
MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson described the conversation, saying Young and Engler were in California when they spoke with the trustees in the phone call.
After hearing from Young and Engler, the trustees reached a “consensus” about approving the settlement, said Ferguson. He said it wasn’t a formal vote, which won’t be held until the board is presented with a written agreement.
“When the written agreement comes, then we have a meeting,” he said.
In the settlement, the university agreed to pay $500 million to settle the claims from more than 300 women and girls who said they were assaulted by Nassar.
MSU trustees have performed similar actions in other cases.
When the university was debating with East Lansing over a local income tax, the schools opted not to pay the city in exchange for them pulling the income tax question off the ballot.
The trustees made the decision not at a public meeting, but by reaching a consensus during a conference call at a work session.