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University of Michigan's costs skyrocket into tens of millions over Robert Anderson


The University of Michigan has paid more than $28 million in legal and other costs tied to sexual assault allegations against the late doctor Robert Anderson.

The majority of the payments, $14.9 million, are the result of ongoing litigation against the university from hundreds of former patients, according to UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, who said the payments included those made as of October.

UM has been paying for legal fees, counseling for victims and an investigation since the first public allegation against Anderson emerged in February 2020.

The lion's share of litigation expenses, $13.7 million, have been paid to Jones Day, UM's lead law firm since May 2020. Attorneys in the firm's Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., offices have deposed of at least two UM officials and accuser Chuck Christian.

UM is in mediation with more than 850 former UM students and others who claim they were sexually abused by Anderson, the former head of University Health Services and a UM athletic department physician.

The university has also paid $12 million to the WilmerHale law firm, which was hired by UM in March 2020 to conduct an investigation into Anderson that led to a 240-page report in May. The report concluded that UM officials knew as early as 1975 that Anderson had been accused of sexual misconduct.

It showed more than two dozen university employees were told about Anderson's alleged behavior over his nearly 40-year career. While several employees reported the doctor after learning of complaints, the majority of the people his patients told — including some of the most powerful people on campus — did not act to stop the doctor, the report found.

The school's costs rose sharply in the last 12 months. In October of last year, UM told The Detroit News it had spent $10.7 million on legal fees, counseling and an investigation into Anderson. The school has paid another $17.4 million, or an average of about $1.45 million a month, in the time since.

Fitzgerald declined to comment about the costs.

Regent Ron Weiser, a Republican, said he was unaware of the $28.1 million tally and was not supposed to talk about the confidential mediation process between the university and lawyers for accusers of Anderson.

Asked to comment on the costs, Weiser said, "The university is doing what it can do."

Other UM regents did not respond to messages left by The News.

UM President Mark Schlissel late last year expressed his concern about the financial impact of the accusations against Anderson on the college in a recorded Zoom call with 100 people affiliated with the university logged in for a routine virtual briefing. 

"The exposure of the university is truly enormous ... could be hundreds of millions of dollars ... unlikely to be covered by insurance at that level ... so depending upon how those cases turn out, that’s gonna be a very significant financial challenge for the university," Schlissel told the group.

Whether a potential settlement with Anderson victims will rival other university sex assault scandals remains to be seen.

The largest payout in a sexual abuse case in higher education is from the University of Southern California, which has paid out more than $1 billion in settlements to women who accused university gynecologist George Tyndall of sexual abuse during his nearly three decades at the university. The university reached a $215 million class-action settlement in 2019 and an $852 million settlement in March with more than 700 women.

Tyndall pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement in 2018 with more than 500 victims of former university sports medicine and USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment.

In August, USA Gymnastics proposed a $425 million settlement with Nassar victims in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Those suing have until the end of next week to vote on it, said California-based attorney John Manly, who is representing about 200 women in the case.

Pennsylvania State University was the first university to reach what was considered at the time a large settlement linked to the sexual abuse of young boys by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. In 2017, Penn State's final settlement reached $109 million.

The UM mediation process that began in October 2020 is aimed at reaching an out-of-court settlement with at least 850 accusers of Anderson. Most accusers are men and accuse the doctor who retired in 2003 and died in 2008 of misconduct in exam rooms ranging from fondling to forced masturbation to rape.

Former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, who filed the first lawsuit against UM in connection with Anderson accusations, said he cannot discuss the mediation process. But he said an additional 150 people have accused Anderson since mediation began, and while they are not formally part of the process, they bring the number of people accusing Anderson of sexual misconduct to more than 1,000.

Manly also said he could not discuss the mediation. But he said UM has embraced, "the Michigan State model: deflect, dodge, assert every technical defense you can..." 

"At the end of the day, what the university community needs is precisely what the survivors need, which is healing," Manly said. "Michigan calls itself the ‘Wolverine Family.' They are spending $30 million to potentially hide the truth from their family, and that is really sad."

Robert Julian Stone, a former student, became the first man to publicly accuse Anderson of sexual misconduct in February 2020, nearly 50 years after an alleged incident and a month before WilmerHale was retained.

Stone shared his story exclusively with The Detroit News. That brought to light an 18-month internal investigation of Anderson that had begun after former UM wrester Tad DeLuca wrote UM a letter about Anderson that had not been made public. The letter was DeLuca's second about Anderson, the first written in 1975, which UM did not act upon.

UM reported last month that more than 2,100 complaints of alleged sexual abuse were made against Anderson last year, the highest number of incidents the university has publicly acknowledged to date. However, the university said it was unclear how many people were involved in the complaints.

During the two years that the university has been grappling with the accusations against Anderson, UM has hired eight law firms. Six have been paid to defend the university or university affiliates. The other two firms, including WilmerHale, were hired to do investigations.

In March 2020, UM hired Bush Seyferth, a Troy-based firm. It paid the firm $516,931 for work that included filing motions to attempt to dismiss claims against the university. UM replaced Bush Seyferth in May 2020 with Jones Day.

UM said it has also paid:

• $322,219 to law firm Foley & Lardner in Detroit to represent the late Thomas Easthope, who was UM associate vice president for student services. Easthope told UM police he fired Anderson in 1979 after reports that the doctor had been abusing patients in exam rooms. But Anderson served on UM's staff for another 24 years. In a deposition, Easthope testified that then-Vice President for Student Services Henry Johnson overturned his decision to terminate Anderson.

• $122,645 to law firm Butzel Long of Detroit to represent Johnson and Jim Toy, UM's first on-staff gay male advocate. Lawyers have deposed Johnson but the document has not been released publicly. Toy took a complaint about Anderson from then-student Keith Moree in 1981. Toy, who is in his 90s, told The News last year he discussed the complaint with Easthope but did not remember many of the details because so much time has elapsed. But he said he also had a troubling experience with Anderson during a rectal exam when he was a UM graduate student.

• $87,582 to law firm DeBevoise & Plimpton of New York to represent Harold Shapiro, an economist and president emeritus of both Princeton University and UM. During Easthope's deposition, a 1979-80 president's report related to Anderson was highlighted. It was unclear who wrote the report, according to the deposition. UM had at least two presidents in 1979 and 1980: Allan Smith served as UM's interim president in 1979; Harold Shapiro began serving as UM's president in January 1980. Smith is deceased. Shapiro told The News in 2020 that he was never alerted to any misconduct by Anderson.

• $103,740 to law firm Brooks, Wilkins, Sharkey & Turco of Birmingham to work with Jones Day on legal defense. 

• Additional costs included $1.1 million paid to Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm UM hired to investigate early claims against Anderson. The school dropped the firm in March 2020 after learning it had defended the late financier Jeffrey Epstein and film director Roman Polanski against allegations of sexual abuse.

• UM also paid $122,970 to Praesidium, an Arlington, Texas, firm that facilitates free counseling for those who have accused Anderson. It also paid $60,121 to consulting firm Guidepost Solutions to overhaul how the university addresses sexual misconduct complaints.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com