Speaking for Survivors
Richard Schulte and Michael Wright represent sexual-abuse victims of former OSU physician Richard Strauss
Super Lawyers online-exclusive on December 30, 2021
The allegations of abuse spanned 20 years. Twenty more passed before Ohio State University publicly acknowledged them and launched an investigation that identified 177 victims.
All young male athletes. Wrestlers, fencers, swimmers and more. OSU students mostly, but high schoolers, too.
That was just the beginning. The findings triggered a cascade of suits accusing former athletic department physician Richard Strauss of groping, raping or otherwise sexually abusing students. More than 500 have come forward with claims; Wright & Schulte has represented more than 200 of them.
“Most of these sexual abuse cases, these are lifelong injuries for these victims, as opposed to some of the other accident cases where a person heals a broken bone. This stays with them for their entire life,” says Michael L. Wright, a negotiator for the plaintiff’s firms. “And as we talk to them, it’s like ripping off the scab again every time they have to go back and focus on what occurred.”
Lead negotiator Rick Schulte says, “You have people dealing with depression, problems with managing relationships, failed relationships, problems with sexuality, substance abuse, and career troubles.”
It took nearly a year of negotiations to reach a settlement, followed by an independent evaluation of each claim. In May 2020, OSU announced that 162 victims in a dozen lawsuits had accepted the initial total $40.9 million payout. Soon, 23 more accepted the settlement, adding another $5.8 million to the total.
But hundreds of claims remained, including 58 handled by Schulte, Wright, and Florida-based civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. “Ohio State has refused to allow them to participate in mediation or in the Strauss Individual Settlement Program,” Schulte says.
Last fall, Judge Michael Watson dismissed hundreds of claims for plaintiffs who did not participate in the settlements. Wright & Schulte planned to appeal that ruling to the 6th Circuit; they also remained hopeful that OSU would decide to offer settlements in those cases.
There are also victims who never file claims. “There are survivors we talk to all the time who don’t decide to file because they’re worried about their identity being known,” Schulte says.
One hurdle shows up in what Schulte calls a common question he gets asked: Why would a powerful football lineman or wrestler let a doctor do that without resisting?
“It’s a stupid question,” Schulte says. “They come, most of them, from humble beginnings. This is their entire pathway to the rest of their life and being successful—whether to become a professional athlete, or whether they go out into the professional world. And they have a coach in administration ordering them to go see a doctor that has the power to clear them to play or not. … Their whole life is riding on whether or not they go to see this doctor.”
The OSU-initiated investigation found that Strauss performed unnecessary genital and rectal examinations, showered with male athletes, and asked uncomfortable questions about their sexual activities. As many as 20 OSU employees may have been aware of the complaints. In 1996, Strauss was removed from the department after some complaints but remained at OSU as a tenured professor, then was granted emeritus status upon leaving in 1998. The investigation took place 20 years later.
In 2018, stories surged in the media about Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University athletics doctor and U.S. women’s national gymnastics team physician accused of abusing more than 250 gymnasts. Some former OSU athletes saw similarities to what happened to them. They complained, sparking the investigation and the lawsuits. By then, Strauss was dead, having died by suicide in 2005.
Schulte says the result at OSU should be a message to all universities with serial sex abusers on their campuses: “You’re going to get caught, and you’re going to pay. Simple as that.”
The OSU case is not the only one Schulte has handled involving complaints against alleged sexual predators. He has also handled cases against priests. “There’s not a day in my life in the last four or five years,” he says, “that I haven’t worked on some aspect of a case on behalf of a survivor.”
And now, Schulte is co-lead counsel and Wright is on the plaintiff steering committee in a sexual-abuse case against the University of Michigan for the acts of late former athletic doctor Richard Anderson. “More than a thousand have come forward or made claims,” Schulte says. “We have an epidemic going on at our universities.”