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UM asks judge to dismiss suit over doctor's sexual abuse

Detroit News staff and wire reports

Detroit — A former wrestler who claims he was sexually assaulted by a University of Michigan sports doctor waited too long to file a lawsuit, the school said Friday as it asked a judge to dismiss the case.

The university said it believes Dr. Robert Anderson assaulted athletes, and it wants to compensate victims. But it added that it’s trying to avoid “drawn-out litigation” while a law firm investigates what happened during Anderson’s decades in Ann Arbor. He died in 2008.

Robert E. Anderson

“The university is committed to grappling with those findings, whatever they may be, to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again,” attorneys said in a filing in U.S. District Court.

In his lawsuit, a man identified as John Doe MC-4 said he was molested by Anderson during exams approximately 16 times, from 1987 to 1991. Hundreds of others have said they, too, were assaulted, some as far back as the 1960s.

“The university has great sympathy for what plaintiff suffered,” attorney Cheryl Bush said of Doe.

But in Doe’s case, Bush said that decades have passed since the last abuse, making the lawsuit untimely.

“The statutes of limitations and sovereign immunity prevent him from recovering damages in court. Plaintiff’s complaint should be dismissed,” she said.

Mike Cox, a former Michigan attorney general who has filed 50 lawsuits against UM on behalf of Anderson's accusers, said the university's response shows its disregard from the doctor's victims and the harm he caused.

"Once again, the UM administration distorts the truth. It pretends to support the athletes it forced to be treated by a known sex predator, while seeking to dismiss the athletes' righteous claims," Cox told The Detroit News. "Once again, the so-called leaders and best, the UM Regents, are engaged in a race to the bottom — seeking to suppress the truth and protect the corrupt powers that be instead of its athletes."

Cox said the timing of the university's announcement comes as he is waiting for UM to respond to his request to depose a key witness. Cox filed an emergency motion to depose and preserve testimony of 87-year-old Thomas Easthope, who as the UM associate director of students in 1979, tried to fire Anderson amid reports that the physician was abusing men during medical care.

John Manly, an attorney who represents some of Anderson's accusers, also criticized UM's legal argument.

“It’s very disappointing to see the Regents trying to rely on the statute of limitations to dismiss these cases when university officials knowingly hid the truth from Anderson’s victims for 30 years," he said. "U of M’s move is sadly predictable and should incentivize the legislature and governor to enact statute of limitations reform to allow all Anderson’s survivors to have their day in court. 

"It’s also why we have declined to file lawsuits and are going through the required claims process in order to hopefully resolve the cases absent litigation,” he said.

Campus police began looking into Anderson in 2018 after a former athlete wrote to athletic director Warde Manuel about being sexually abused during medical exams in the early 1970s.

The investigation came to light when Robert Julian Stone told The Detroit News for a February story that Anderson had sexually abused him during a medical appointment in 1971.

The university has acknowledged some employees were aware of accusations against Anderson before the 2018 complaint.

“Our courts were created and designed to hold individuals and entities, like Dr. Anderson and UM, accountable," Parker Stinar, an attorney representing some of Dr. Anderson's accusers, told The Detroit News in an emailed statement. "UM’s attempt to dismiss victim’s lawsuits is another attempt at silencing voices and denying transparency.

"I believe UM’s motion should be and will he denied, and UM will again let down it’s alumni, students, and public with this attempt. My clients are disappointed in how the current administration has handled the decades of sexual abuse,  institutional negligence and fraudulent concealment by UM.”

UM said this week it 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 Anderson.

President Mark Schlissel said he wants to compensate people outside the court system. He was joined in a statement by Ron Weiser, chairman of the university’s governing board, who has said he was molested by Anderson in the 1960s.

Nearly 300 complaints about Anderson are being investigated by the WilmerHale law firm, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Friday.

The firm’s report will be released to the public, Fitzgerald said.

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. 

"We want to bring closure for those who have so bravely come forward to share their experiences," Schlissel said this week. "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.”

The Associated Press and Detroit News staff writer Kim Kozlowski contributed to this report.