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University of Michigan faces first lawsuit alleging sex abuse by doctor

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The first lawsuit against the University of Michigan involving sexual abuse allegations involving the late Dr. Robert E. Anderson was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court by a former wrestler who claims the physician abused him on at least 35 occasions in the 1980s.

The lawsuit,which also names the UM Board of Regents as defendants, alleges the university was aware of Anderson's misconduct and is responsible for it because "UM placed vulnerable student athletes, like plaintiff, in Anderson’s care despite knowing he was a sexual predator." 

Attorney and CEO Mike Cox speaks during a press conference regarding alleged sexual abuse claims by their clients against former University of Michigan doctor, Dr. Robert E. Anderson at the Mike Cox Law Firm office in Livonia, Mich. on Mar. 4, 2020.

"UM has been engaging in a cover-up for 40 years and for the past 18 months under President (Mark) Schlissel," said Mike Cox, a Livonia-based attorney who represents the John Doe who filed the lawsuit. "It’s a massive cover-up. I'm a UM grad, and we are supposed to be the leaders and the best. In this case, we were worse than the people we like to look down our nose at."

According to the suit, Anderson began abusing the plaintiff when he arrived at UM as a 17-year-old freshman in fall 1984 and had to receive a physical to compete on the wrestling team.

It's the first of 11 suits expected to be filed by former UM athletes who were allegedly abused by Anderson, according to Cox. More complaints will be filed individually in the next few days by former UM wrestlers, football and hockey players.

Cox said the suit was filed after he and two other lawyers met with UM's general counsel in a session he said was unproductive.

Asked if the UM case could end in a massive settlement like the prominent sexual abuse cases at Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University, Cox said UM will pay somehow.

"If it doesn’t, we are going to pound Michigan," said Cox. "We will drag the truth out of them and bare it to the public."

He compared the allegations against Anderson to those against Larry Nassar, the serial sex abuser whose victims received $500 million in a settlement with MSU.

"This is worse than Michigan State," he said.

Wednesday's suit details allegations of abuse and outlines numerous instances in which individuals allegedly alerted UM officials about Anderson's behavior before he was removed as director of the university's health service and began working in its athletic department. 

"We've got to get to the bottom of how a sexual predator was demoted by the university in 1980 from head of the University Health Service to become the sole physician for the athletic department," said David Shea of the Shea Law Firm in Southfield, who is working with Cox.

From left, Attorneys Jackie Cook, Mike Cox and David Shea hold a press conference regarding alleged sexual abuse claims by their clients against former University of Michigan doctor, Dr. Robert E. Anderson at the Mike Cox Law Firm office in Livonia, Mich. on Mar. 4, 2020.

"UM knew that this doctor was abusing patients, and they chose instead of terminating him to foist him on the athletic department and require its student-athletes to see him, and we need to get to the bottom of that. Right now, U of M is not giving any answers on that issue."

In response to the suit, UM officials restated an apology given by President Mark Schlissel last month.

"We can't comment other than to deeply apologize for the harm caused by Robert E. Anderson," UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said. "We recognize the enormous strength and courage it takes for survivors to come forward and share their stories." 

Wednesday's accuser alleges Anderson "assaulted and abused (him) on at least 35 occasions, or 70 total acts of nonconsensual anal penetration and genital fondling" and the abuse continued until 1989.

The plaintiff "saw Anderson approximately 10 times a year (or 50 times over the course of his career) for physicals and various medical issues such as mat herpes, a fractured nose, a cyst, ankle and knee injuries, along with colds and flus," and during most of those visits, "Anderson required plaintiff to drop his pants," the suit alleges.

According to UM police reports, Thomas Easthope, then UM associate director of students, removed Anderson in 1979 from his health service post for "fooling around with male students," but the doctor went on to be the team physician for the University of Michigan football team and other athletic squads until his retirement in 2003. 

Easthope initially told detectives he fired Anderson "on the spot" but shortly thereafter said he may have allowed the doctor to resign. He told the officers he believed Anderson had returned to private practice and expressed shock that he had remained employed by UM until 2003. 

Several allegations emerged last month that Anderson, who died in 2008, had sexually assaulted male patients during medical care.

Wednesday's lawsuit states the anonymous plaintiff came from a large working-class family and attended UM as an undergraduate with an athletic scholarship from 1984-89. 

According to the suit, UM's head wrestling coach sat on his family's couch during his senior year of high school and promised "he and his coaches would 'take care of their son.'" 

Anderson had power over athletes, the suit says, so they had to endure the doctor's alleged abuse.  

"As the UM Athletic Department’s physician and 'gatekeeper,' Anderson had the power to keep wrestlers off the wrestling mat under the guise of a diagnosis, and thus place plaintiff’s scholarship (and his opportunity for a college degree) in jeopardy if plaintiff did not comply with Anderson’s methods and orders," the suit said.

Broekhuizen, the university spokeswoman, said UM continues to encourage those who have been harmed by Anderson, or who have evidence of his misconduct, to come forward.

"It’s important that the University of Michigan hear your voices," she said. "We also want those who have been affected by Robert Anderson to have access to confidential support and counseling. The university is offering counseling services at no personal cost to anyone affected by Anderson."

Broekhuizen also gave a telephone number for UM's outside investigators, Steptoe & Johnson, (202) 419-5162, and an email address, UofM@steptoe.com.

Shea dismissed UM's offer of counseling and reports to its outside investigators as efforts to divert attention from the university's response to complaints against Anderson.

"It distracts from the real questions as to how this physician ever got into the athletic department, where he permanently resided from 1980 until 2003 and systematically sexually molested male student-athletes," he said.

The suit notes numerous individuals who have spoken publicly recently and said they alerted UM decades ago about Anderson.

Those cited in the lawsuit include UM alumnus Gary Bailey, who said he told the university about Anderson in 1968, and Tad DeLuca, who wrote a letter to then-UM wrestling coach Bill Johannesen in 1975.

The lawsuit also says a graduate student told UM in 1979 about Anderson after an examination at University Health Service where the doctor “gave undue attention to my genitals and rectal area." 

"This graduate student complained loudly to the desk clerk, and then an administrator, both of whom 'dismissed' him and ordered a security guard to escort him out of UHS, instead of investigating his allegation against Anderson," according to the suit.

The same year, a UM activist told Easthope that "Anderson had assaulted several members of the gay community," yet the doctor was allowed to stay on as an athletic physician and continue abusing students, the complaint alleges.

"​​​​All the assaults could have been prevented if UM had acted on and/or investigated complaints against Anderson that UM had notice of as early as 1968," the suit says. "All of the assaults on plaintiff could have been prevented if UM had terminated Anderson’s employment in 1979 or 1980.

"All of the assaults on the plaintiff could have been prevented if UM had warned the plaintiff or properly supervised Anderson or trained athletic department supervisors such as plaintiff’s coaches and trainers," the suit continues. "But UM failed to do any of these things."

Sarah Klein, an attorney and Nassar's earliest known victim, is part of a team of attorneys representing survivors in the Anderson case; that team helped drive the $500 million settlement with MSU.

“In a way, this is the Twilight Zone. Here we are, back in my home state at the other crown jewel of Michigan,” said Klein of Delaware-based Dalton and Associates who also works with the California-based firm Manly, Stewart & Finaldi.

Klein’s team represents more than 50 people who say Anderson abused them, and the client list, she said, is growing by the hour.

Klein said what’s clear across all of the cases from MSU and elsewhere is the pattern of “protect the brand, enable the predator.”

“Protect the brand and mitigate liability tends to be the knee-jerk reaction. From experience, I can tell you that is the absolutely wrong institutional response to have,” she said. “It was my hope, and I think our hope, that Michigan State be a lesson, and thus far, we have not seen that translate in the Dr. Anderson case.”

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.