UM reaches deal in federal lawsuit over Anderson scandal response

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan is expected to settle a lawsuit that claimed the school violated federal law by putting students at increased risk of sexual assault, harassment and emotional trauma because of how it handled the Dr. Robert Anderson scandal, according to court documents filed Thursday.

UM junior Josephine Graham of Ann Arbor filed the federal class-action lawsuit last May after a UM investigation showed more than two dozen university officials were alerted to Anderson's behavior during his nearly four-decade tenure but did not stop him. Graham's suit demanded that the university implement policies and procedures to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus.

Accusers of former University of Michigan doctor Robert Anderson and their supporters rally Sept. 23, 2021 in Ann Arbor. UM reached a $490 million settlement with Anderson's accusers in January, and on Thursday court documents show UM is proposing to partially settle a federal lawsuit that claimed the school violated federal law.

The proposed settlement comes about two months after UM announced a record-setting settlement with more than 1,000 victims who said the former head of University Health Service, and later, team physician for the college's Athletic Department, molested them between 1966 when he joined UM and his retirement in 2003. He died in 2008.

Graham wanted a federal judge to order UM to implement and enforce policies and procedures designed to prevent and respond to sexual violence, including instituting a policy that requires university officials to report incidents of student sexual assault to authorities, implementing background checks for all new hires, including physicians who interact with patients, and verifying the credentials of all clinical personnel annually.

While the settlement does none of those things, pending approval by U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts, it proposes that UM create a Coordinated Community Response Team, a standing committee comprised of community members, campus stakeholders, students and victims that works to prevent campus sexual violence.

Proponents say that it will create transparency, accountability and add new voices into the work UM is doing to address to sexual misconduct.

CCRTs are “widely recognized by experts on sexual misconduct prevention as an indispensable tool” to prevent sexual assaults on campuses, Graham’s spokesperson Ray DeLorenzi said in a statement.

“This agreement will modernize UM’s approach to preventing and responding to sexual violence, and ensure our safety is a top priority,” said Graham. “The CCRT will allow greater input from those in our community, including students like myself, who can help create a better future at our university.”

This composite image shows the University of Michigan Health Service building and a file photo of Dr. Robert E. Anderson.

Officials from UM, which initially sought to dismiss the lawsuit, declined to say why the school decided to settle Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the settlement shows UM has a commitment to continuing to address sexual misconduct.

"The University of Michigan has been focusing on ways to address sexual misconduct for decades," said Fitzgerald. "We're continuing to evolve that process with the creation of the CCRT to more formally and fully engage our community in the battle against sexual misconduct."

Fitzgerald said UM agreed to pay Graham's attorney's fees.

"The university has agreed to pay the approved fees, not to exceed $5 million," Fitzgerald said.

UM said the CCRT would meet at least three times each year to “monitor and evaluate sexual misconduct prevention and response efforts” and the co-chairs would meet regularly with UM President Mary Sue Coleman.

“The creation of the Coordinated Community Response Team is another important step toward our vision of becoming a national leader in protecting our community from inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct,” Coleman said in a statement. “The structure of the team, which includes leadership from outside the university, will give a voice to all members of our community who have a perspective to share on this vital effort.”

CCRTs are recognized by the federal government as a best practice to address sexual misconduct and gender-based violence on college campuses, said Nancy Chi Catalupo, a Wayne State University Law School assistant professor and expert in Title IX, sexual harassment and gender-based violence in education. 

The 2017 White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault identified CCRTs as the first of six primary elements of a comprehensive sexual harassment and gender-based violence prevention plan, she said.

Additionally, the Office on Violence Against Women in the U.S. Department of Justice requires colleges to set them up in order to receive grants to reduce violent crimes against women, Catalupo added.

"Institutions have adopted CCRTs over and over again with great success," Catalupo said. 

Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University psychology professor and national expert on sexual assault, co-authored a 2014 study of CCRTs. She said they are used widely throughout the U.S.

"Research data are very clear that it is a promising best practice," said Campbell. "These teams do a good job of bringing multidisciplinary practitioners together to work together. For survivors, it makes for a more coordinated, streamlined, less-revictimizing help-seeking experience." 

A separate lawsuit against UM related to Anderson's alleged abuse was filed in 2020 and sought financial damages. The suit also sought to be certified as class action but that is pending while the suit is in mediation. Negotiations for a financial settlement are ongoing, UM said in a statement. 

UM reached a $490 million settlement in January with 1,050 people, mostly men, who claimed they were sexually abused by Anderson. 

Rumors about his inappropriate behavior in exam rooms with athletes and students who were gay began circulating almost immediately after he arrived on campus, according to the report issued last year by the WilmerHale law firm. The firm was hired by UM to investigate how the school handled allegations against Anderson.

It was the largest legal settlement in the university's history and will be paid with university reserves and insurance proceeds. 

Under the proposed agreement, the CCRT will be co-chaired by an external adviser, a faculty member and the university’s executive director of the Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office.

Those include:

• Rebecca Veidlinger, who UM said has "experience evaluating institutional responses to sexual misconduct and identifying areas for improvement." An attorney who works as a Title IX consultant, conducting investigations, adjudications, training and compliance consulting, she'll serve for at least three years, UM said. While UM said she is an external representative, she has served as an intermittent lecturer at the U-M Law School, teaching a course entitled “Title IX and Higher Education Law,” UM said.

“I am encouraged to see U-M create this vehicle for amplifying a range of voices on the subject of sexual misconduct in our community,” Veidlinger said. “As a co-chair of the Coordinated Community Response Team, I am looking forward to working with members of the U-M community to develop positive steps forward in the fight to combat sexual misconduct.”

• Sandra Levitsky, an associate professor of sociology in the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, who studies gender and sexuality. "She is currently analyzing how colleges and universities are responding to outside pressure to address sexual violence on campus, including a longitudinal analysis of the policies and practices of 380 colleges and universities," the school said in a statement.

• Tamiko Strickman, special adviser to Coleman and executive director of the university’s Equity, Civil Rights and Title IX Office. Strickman is an attorney with more than a dozen years of experience with sexual misconduct who has worked at UM since 2019.

“Leaders and best is not a just mantra or slogan," said Jonathan Selbin, an attorney with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, the law firm representing Graham. "It is something that must be pursued and fought for again and again and again.

The settlement, Selbin added, "will lead to the creation and implement best of class institutional reforms at (UM) to address and prevent sexual misconduct now and into the future"