The $44 Million Verdict Against Oberlin

Oberlin College just got hit again with a jury judgment that could cripple the college financially. Last Friday, the jury found the college guilty of libel and returned a verdict award of $11.2 million to Gibson’s, a local store and its proprietors. Today, the jury added $33 million in punitive damages – a clear sign that jurors were sending a strong message. The total of $44 million is likely to be pared back since Ohio State law caps punitive awards at twice the amount of the verdict award. The jurors also added the cost of the plaintiff’s legal fees to the total.

The story, by now, is well-known. A few days after Donald Trump’s election, an underage black Oberlin student attempted to purchase a bottle of wine. The white proprietor of a local store, Gibson’s, refused to sell the wine, prompting the student to try and shoplift it. He and two friends fled the store with the proprietor in pursuit. The arrests of the students prompted protests by other Oberlin students suggesting that the shoplifters were innocent (they weren’t) and that Gibson was racist (it wasn’t).

A senior Oberlin administrator, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, joined in the protests. The college ceased purchasing goods and services from Gibson’s—causing the victims of a crime economic harm. And after the college refused to apologize or release a statement denying Gibson’s racist intent, the store, and its owners sued.

Evidence

Both sides presented mounds of evidence in the 11-day trial. But three items especially stood out.

First: Raimondo maintained that she was a neutral observer at the protest, acting in her official capacity as an Oberlin administrator and only seeking to safeguard the First Amendment rights of the student extremists. But testimony at the trial showed Raimondo handing out flyers denouncing Gibson’s as racist, indicating that she (and through her, the college) endorsed the protesters’ message. Raimondo was also subjected to a brutal cross-examination in which she refused to concede that it was harmful to a business to be falsely accused of racist behavior.

Second: even if a senior Oberlin administrator endorsed the protest if the allegations of racism were true, Gibson’s had no case. But a police study, prepared in response to requests from the media, showed that Gibson’s allegations of criminal misconduct showed no signs of racial disparity. And the shoplifting students eventually pled guilty for their crime. And so, in effect, the protest amounted to a demand that black Oberlin shoplifters should receive some sort of special treatment, hardly a winning message for the school.

Third: after the original protests, Oberlin cut off business with Gibson’s. To restore commercial ties, Oberlin demanded that Gibson’s report future Oberlin students who broke the law on the store’s premises not to the police—but instead to the college, where they’d be shielded from criminal prosecution. I’d have to think that this element of the case—a separate, preferred criminal justice system open only to Oberlin students and not other county residents—played particularly poorly with the jury.

In short, a key Oberlin administrator endorsed a fact-free, defamatory protest against a local business; and the school responded to the controversy by seeking to create a parallel (and more lenient) criminal justice system that would only be open to Oberlin students (or, at least, preferred Oberlin students) who engaged in off-campus criminal behavior.

Campus Atmosphere

The most jarring comment to come from the trial was a text from Meredith Raimondo. After a lone Oberlin professor protested the college’s handling of the case, Raimondo wrote a colleague, “Fuck him. I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.” This comment, of course, not only indicated Raimondo’s sympathy for the students’ extremism (belying later college claims that she was merely acting in a neutral fashion) but also suggested that she exercised some control over the students—or at least believed she had some control.

Raimondo, in fact, had been promoted shortly before the Gibson’s affair. She previously had served as Oberlin’s Title IX coordinator, where she said she approached her task “as a feminist committed to survivor-centered processes.” She said she was “uncomfortable” with discussions about “grey areas” of consent, because, she said, “I think it’s too often used to discredit particularly women’s experiences of violence.” And she maintained that the “first goal of a Title IX hearing at Oberlin” was not to discern the truth, but instead to provide “a safe, supportive space for someone to ask, ‘What are the harms you experienced and how can we address them so you can continue your education?’” The Title IX lawsuit that discovered these comments is now before the Sixth Circuit, so it’s possible that Raimondo could play a role in another major legal defeat for the college.

The arrogance seen in Raimondo’s conduct reappeared in a post-verdict mass e-mail sent by the college’s counsel—even before the punitive damages were decided. The e-mail asserted that—despite the evidence the jury found convincing, neither “Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others.” In a non-sequitur, the e-mail claimed, “Colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students”—but nothing in the jury’s verdict suggested otherwise.

Media

The trial received extensive coverage in the Legal Insurrection blog, the only non-local publication to have a reporter in the courtroom and the only publication to have daily articles on what transpired in court. The approach was a reminder that blogs can still play an important role, even in an era where Twitter often serves as the dominant social media venue.

Legal Insurrection’s performance was even more impressive in comparison to the performance of the national media, especially the New York Times, which only covered the affair after the verdict came down. The Times article, written by Mihir Zaveri and Emily Rueb, framed the verdict as an assault on student free speech, anchored by several quotes from noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams. (“The notion that uninhibited student speech can lead to vast financial liability for the universities at which it occurs threatens both the viability of educational institutions and ultimately the free speech of their students,” Abrams told the Times.) But the issue in the case was the conduct of the college—and in particular Raimondo—not the students.

It wasn’t clear from his comments whether Abrams was relying on an incomplete understanding of the case provided by the reporters and/or Oberlin, or whether he was contending that in cases where students target local business, a college or its employees shouldn’t be held liable for anything they do. But it was striking that the Times reporters featured quotes from only four people—lawyers from the two parties, Abrams, and higher-ed official who echoed Abrams’ First Amendment framing. Neither Abrams nor the higher-ed official commented on Raimondo’s claim that she believed she had the power to leash or “unleash” the students, or on the evidence of Raimondo herself distributing the defamatory flyers.

Oberlin doubtless will appeal.

This story was updated on June 13 at 9:06 pm.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

11 thoughts on “The $44 Million Verdict Against Oberlin

  1. In the aftermath of the collapse of the case against the Duke Lacrosse team, I wrote an article in the American Thinker considering the potential for law suits stopping college administrations from defaming students or faculty who have run afoul of the “political correctness police”.

    https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2007/02/depaul_and_the_duke_lacrosse_c.html

    Sadly, Tom Klocek’s case went through two sympathetic judges but DePaul managed to get to a third judge who threw out the case, and a few years later Tom passed away, the innocent victim of a politically motivated smear. DePaul learned little from Tom’s case but perhaps the Oberlin verdict will throw the fear of God into the DePaul administration and they will stop pandering to the angry voices of its social justice warriors. I’m not holding my breath.

  2. “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
    And Oberlin finds such a harvest painful.

    They should. Their pain (and the $44M bill handed them by the jury) is entirely deserved.

    The behavior of both the so-called College and its so-called students was shameful… but entirely predictable. In the post-modern world Oberlin inhabits…according to the relativist doctrine structured by the administration, preached by its faculty and consumed by the spoiled children there ensconced….reality is not what is real…it is only what it is perceived to be…what it needs to be….what it ‘should’ be as defined by Progressive Narrative.

    Given that Chernobylesque perspective on the truth….

    Of course the owner of the bakery was described as the racist aggressor, when in fact, according to the testimony of a former Oberlin police officer, there on the scene: “we saw two young ladies standing over [the Gibson employee] and throwing haymakers at him,” he said. “The two women would stand over him and kick him, and then crouch down and throw punches. As we got closer, we could see him on his back, with the male [shoplifter] on top of him and punching him.”

    Of course, the Bakery is guilty and the thieves, gang-assaulting the young Gibson, mere victims. That is the Party line.

    Also voiced by the Apparatchiks: the equivalent ‘truth’ that the College did NOT help to drive the protest, fuel the protest, and directly act to damage Gibson on the basis of the lies the College itself was promoting. “DON’T BUY…this is a RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION. Today we urge you to shop elsewhere in light of a particularly heinous event involving the owners of this establishment and local law enforcement”. This was the flyer handed-out by the Dean of Students, Meredith Raimondo, who, in answer to the question, “(Do you believe) if there were negative consequences from being accused unjustly of either assaulting people or being racist when you aren’t”, replied: “I think it depends on the circumstances.”

    We can imagine the Soviets answering questions about the reactor explosion the same way.

    This is not just plain, run-of-the-mill idiocy….this is idiocy of the highest order. And dangerously destructive idiocy at that.

    But inside the echo chamber which is Oberlin College, all this seemed right, seemed fair, seemed proportional and even virtuous. From the outside, though, all this was insane. As described by Robert Piron, retired professor of economics there at Oberlin: ““I reached a conclusion that if you say a college had a mind, it was certainly out of its mind by now. It was the dumbest thing I have seen in years…. The thing that saddens me is that there are groups at Oberlin College now who are counseling prospective students about this affair. And as far as I am concerned, they are scandalously hurting the Gibson’s continually. It’s astoundingly cruel and dumb of the college. And I don’t think I will ever forgive them … I am furious, absolutely furious. They have taken wrong step after wrong step. And the level of sheer incompetence is beyond imagination.”

    But such outside criticism doesn’t really count, does it…if no one’s listening?

    When hearing that one particular member of the professoriate spoke against the bakery boycott, Raimondo replied, “Fuck him….I’d say unleash the students if I wasn’t convinced this needs to be put behind us.” $44M later, it seems, it’s still not behind them.

  3. The important thing to note here is that the vast majority of colleges and universities could never be on the receiving end of a $44M judgement in a suit like this.

    First, “sovereign immunity” and the 11th Amendment prevents suits against public institutions — it’s the old adage of “the King can do no wrong” and hence you can’t sue the king in his own courts without his permission. Hence you are looking at either a state tort claims act with set maximum limits (e.g. Massachusetts limits total awards to $100K) or actually having to get the legislature to give permission to sue (e.g. Maine).

    And as to privates, the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Utah, & Wyoming still protect nonprofit corporations from tort liability to some extent– Massachusetts has a $20K limit. This is from the old belief that a charity was for a common good and hence ought not face tort liability.

    Hence the problem — unless you make it a civil rights issue (42 USC 1983) you aren’t going to get anywhere because there is not enough money for any lawyer to be interested….

  4. I think the Oberlin board of trustees should engage well-known alumnus Richard Haass to lead a group which would study the current dysfunction and make recommendations for change. Oberlin’s long-term survival is certainly in question at this point.

  5. “the protest amounted to a demand that black Oberlin shoplifters should receive some sort of special treatment”

    Ummm — they shouldn’t?!?

    Call me cynical, but I remember when a Black UMass student sliced & diced two White kids — nearly killing both — and it was OK because he was Black and everyone protested…

    This is not how we build positive race relations in this country…

  6. Oberlin’s former president said that the food order was cancelled because the students indicated that they would not eat it. He also said that he tried to work with the owner to de-escalate the situation. Dean Raimondo said that she gave a flyer to a reporter that she had been given. She also disputed that she had used a bullhorn to address the students several times. She said that she used it only once and that her purpose was to identify herself to the students who were protesting (Scott Mahoney’s reporting at the Chronicle-Telegram).

    1. Doesn’t matter — as colleges increasingly re-impose in loco parentis (and that’s what all this Title IX stuff is, etc) the colleges are concurrently assuming the liability of parents. While Gibson won on evidence that Oberlin’s hands weren’t as clean as you purport, I’d argue that in loco parentis has returned to the point where a college is absolutely liable for what it’s students do. Or refuse to do.

      1. In loco parentis was based on the need for young students to be guided, protected, disciplined, and governed by older and wiser heads. This was probably not too far off the mark during the centuries when many university students were in their mid-teens or thereabouts. As the educational system delayed university entrance until the students were actually young adults, they rebelled against being treated like children, and universities eventually acceded.
        Now that the students are still older but have gone to childishness — safe rooms with balloons and teddy bears, micro-aggressions, running to their parents to get their marks increased, etc. — in loco parentis should be revived. But we should also go back to having professors and administrators who actually think and act like responsible adults rather than overindulgent patsies.
        Good luck with that.

    2. Oberlin’s defense team tried to make similar minimization of Raimondo’s and the colleges conduct. The Jury didn’t find them compelling.

      The school made a big deal about the first amendment in their defense. And yet they expelled two students for a racial and antisemitic hoax in 2013. Apparently the First Amendment is only considered when the school is being sued.

    3. Yes, that was the testimony, but it was all contested. Multiple witnesses contradicted Raimondo’s claim that she only handed out one flyer. Moreover, when she was accused, pre-trial, of handing out one flyer, she called that person a liar. So, she lied about handing out one flyer, and was caught lying about handing out multiple flyers. The flyer itself was absolutely false, as it accused the victim of an assault as conducting the assault. False statements against non-public figures have been, since the nation’s founding, been an exception to first amendment protection. Similarly, the other testimony about being neutral was contradicted an discredited. There is simply nothing in law, first amendment or otherwise, that says you can actually distribute, and encourage to be distribute, false and defamatory statements that destroy a business without consequences. Yes, Oberlin mounted a defense, but that is the point of the trial. They lost and this theme that they did hardly anything was found by the jury, and most observers, to be a thin and easily dismissed defense. The bottom line is that Oberlin is not above the law. Now, are the damages excessive? Probably. I can’t see how a small business can support economic damages of that size but the liability portion is solid.

    4. Yeah, that was just a** covering nonsense. The jury saw right through it. They stirred up a hornet’s nest and directed it at a business with no care or even possible malignant intent to destroy them. They will lose the appeal because there does not seem to be any reversible error. Good luck with these kinds of defenses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *