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3 things to know about what MSU just did in the Nassar case

Michigan State University sign
Michigan State University

It’s going to be another news-packed week in the case of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports doctor who sexually abused patients under the guise of treatment.

Nassar will be back in state court Tuesday, where he’ll be sentenced after pleading guilty to multiple sexual assaults. Some 88 women and girls are expected to make victim impact statements. But before that, here’s what you need to know about how Michigan State University is handling the case.

1)      Asked a judge to dismiss victims’ lawsuits against MSU   

After mediation failed between Michigan State University and 140 victims’ attorneys, MSU joined other defendants in the case (USA Gymnastics and Twistars) on Friday by asking the court to throw out the victims’ lawsuits.

Why it matters

What’s important here is the legal case MSU lays out in its defense: Its strength or weakness will determine how this case unfolds.

First off, MSU’s attorneys argue the school and its employees have immunity from this kind of suit under state law, so long as an employee “reasonably believes he is acting within the scope of his authority,” and “the employee’s conduct does not amount to gross negligence that is … [the] cause of the injury or damage.”

MSU’s attorneys: telling a coach or an athletic trainer doesn’t count

MSU’s lawyers are arguing that even if victims did tell multiple MSU employees about Nassar’s abuse as far back 1997, that’s still not enough to win their case. Title IX, this motion argues, requires plaintiffs give “notice to an ‘appropriate person.’” Women say they told the head women’s gymnastics coach and athletic trainers, among others. But MSU’s lawyers say those people don’t count. They cite previous court rulings that officials have to “have authority to terminate or suspend the offending individual” in order to qualify as an “appropriate person.” So long as these victims didn’t tell a supervisor of Nassar’s, this brief argues, their claims won’t hold up in court. 

Secondly, MSU says only “students and employees of MSU” can sue the school under Title IX. “The vast majority of plaintiffs … were never MSU students or they were not MSU students at the time of Nassar’s misconduct.”

Third, the school’s attorneys say the statute of limitations has passed for most of these victims to sue.

2)      Gave victims more info about the $10 million counseling fund

Last month was a rough one for MSU. There were calls for President Lou Anna K. Simon’s resignation, demands for outside investigations into the school’s handling of Nassar, and a proposal to stop the school from using state money to settle its lawsuits. That’s when MSU’s Board of Trustees made an announcement: The school was creating a $10 million Healing Assistance Fund to provide counseling services for Nassar’s victims.

Right away, attorneys say their clients – women, girls and their families – had questions. Who would qualify? What services would it cover? And could these survivors, many of whom say they’re deeply frustrated with MSU’s response, work with the school to get the care they needed?

So here’s what we learned this week.

Who’s covered? “MSU health clinic patients and student athletes whom Nassar abused, as well as the parents of these victims,” the school’s spokesman said in a statement.

 Who’s going to run it? The main person is an attorney named Paul Finn, the mediator who settled the Boston clergy sex abuse case, involving 552 victim claims (check out this Boston Globe profile of Finn.) He runs theCommonwealth Mediation and Conciliation Inc. in Massachusetts. Finn and two of his coworkers “will work directly with victims to answer eligibility questions and facilitate access to the fund,” according to the school’s statement. (Their contact info is here.)

What exactly does it cover? Still kind of vague on that. So far, the school says “victims will be able to receive reimbursement for their expenses related to counseling and mental health services from a provider of their choice.” If they need a referral for those services, MSU says they can make a “confidential call”  to the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. From there, they can be “connected with qualified providers in their areas, no matter where they live. A dedicated 24-hour phone line, 866-407-1240, at MNCASA will also be active beginning noon Jan. 12.”

3)      President Simon opted out of attending Nassar’s sentencing

President Lou Anna K. Simon has taken a different tone lately in her public statements about the Nassar case. She’s always stressed that Nassar’s abuse was “abhorrent” and that university was responding by “taking action.” But her comments last Aprilwere poorly received, when she told the Board of Trustees: “I have been told it is virtually impossible to stop a determined sexual predator and pedophile, that they will go to incomprehensible lengths to keep what they do in the shadows.”

Now, however, she’s apologizing to victims.

“I am truly sorry for the abuse you suffered, the pain it caused, and the pain it continues to cause today,” she told a crowd at December’s Board of Trustees meeting. “I am sorry a physician who called himself a Spartan so utterly betrayed your trust and everything this university stands for.”

On Friday, theLansing State Journalreported that both Simon and Board Chairman Brian Breslin initially considered “attending the first day of Larry Nassar's sentencing next week, but eventfully decided against it.”

A spokesman for the school told the Journal that Simon and Breslin wanted to hear the "brave young women as they make their voices heard," but ultimately "the determination was, Nassar's sentencing is about getting justice for the victims, and the focus should remain on the victims," the spokesman said. "The courtroom simply isn't large and the priority should go to the victims and their families."

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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