Judge orders Schlissel to join court conference on Anderson suits

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the law firm where Thomas Easthope's lawyer works. Jennifer Z. Belveal is with Foley & Lardner LLP.

The litigation against the University of Michigan related to allegations of sexual abuse by a former UM doctor heated up Wednesday with two separate legal moves.

U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts on Wednesday ordered University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel to attend the next virtual status conference regarding the 70 lawsuits against the university related to Dr. Robert E. Anderson, employed by the university from the late 1960s to early 2000s.

Later in the day, the lawyer for Thomas Easthope, a former UM associate vice president of student services, filed a motion requesting that his court-ordered deposition be delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Easthope, 87, is not a party to the lawsuits but told UM police investigating allegations against Anderson that he fired the doctor in 1979 after reports that the physician had been abusing patients in exam rooms. Anderson, who died in 2008, served on UM's staff for another 24 years. 

Attorney Mike Cox, representing dozens of Anderson's accusers, argued in court filings that Easthope is one of very few living former UM administrators with personal knowledge of Anderson’s abuse.

But Easthope's attorney, Jennifer Z. Belveal of Foley & Lardner in Detroit, wrote in the motion that "there is no reason to rush his depositions at unreasonable risk and inconvenience to him."

She suggested a deposition be held after an investigative report is produced by WilmerHale, the law firm UM hired to look into its handling of the allegations. That report is not expected until October.

"Due to his age (87), Mr. Easthope is especially at risk of potentially fatal complications arising from exposure to the Coronavirus, although he is otherwise in good health," Belveal wrote. "Requiring Mr. Easthope to attend two eight-hour depositions in conference rooms full of more than a dozen attorneys poses an undue burden in the form of a serious risk to Mr. Easthope’s life."

The order for Schlissel to appear within the next two weeks came as part of an order in which the judge also barred UM from reaching out to any more potential victims of Anderson. 

Roberts also appointed attorney Robert F. Riley of Riley & Hurley in Dearborn as mediator in the dozens of lawsuits filed again UM regarding Anderson's alleged abuse.

The judge's order came after a status conference held Tuesday with attorneys representing alleged victims of  Anderson and issues around an upcoming mediation were discussed. The lawyers expressed concerns about UM contacting potential victims of the doctor in the middle of litigation against the university — and without the university alerting possible victims that lawyers are available to represent their interests.

They also raised the question of independence between WilmerHale, an external law firm hired by the university to conduct an investigation of Anderson, and also Jones Day, the law firm that UM hired to defend itself.

During the status conference, the judge raised questions about the independence of WilmerHale's investigation and Jones Day's work defending UM.

"I understand the law firms are separate," she said Tuesday, asking UM's lawyers about the goal of the WilmerHale investigation and expressing skepticism herself about the firm's independence.

"Because of this ongoing investigation, the Court feels the need to gather information about its purpose and how it might impact information gathering and resolution of plaintiffs’ claims," Roberts wrote. "Toward that end, the Court requires Jones Day to make the necessary arrangements to involve WilmerHale and the University of Michigan President in the Court’s next status conference."

The judge, who did not discuss Schlissel's appearance during the status conference on Tuesday, did not explain in her order why she wanted him to participate in the next conference.

"We are studying the orders," UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said.

Last year, the university successfully appealed a judge's order that Schlissel appear in federal court and publicly discuss a sexual misconduct case against a student.

 Annika K. Martin of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, an interim lawyer for the proposed class action lawsuit against UM, said she appreciated the court's order, which "will help ensure that all of Dr. Anderson’s victims are treated fairly and respectfully without interference from the University of Michigan — the very entity that harbored and protected their abuser for decades."

"We have said from day one that only a transparent process overseen by the court will truly hold UM accountable and ensure victims are treated compassionately and compensated fairly," said Martin.

"UM’s plans to conduct its program in secret, and collect information from victims who are in active litigation against it, would only serve to help UM sweep this under the rug, preventing the truth from coming to light," she said. "We will fight so that every survivor has an opportunity to obtain justice and create lasting change at UM to prevent this type of abuse from ever occurring again."