LOS ANGELES (CN) – Before former patients finalize their $215 million sexual abuse settlement with the University of Southern California, they must provide a federal court with more details on settlement payments and the implementation of campus reforms, a judge orderedThursday.
In a federal class action filed in May 2018, former patients said former USC gynecologist George Tyndall routinely made inappropriate, sexually suggestive comments, took photographs of them, groped them and forced them to strip naked “for no other reason than to satisfy his own prurient sexual desires.”
They also accused the university of ignoring complaints from hundreds of students and alumni about Tyndall’s sexually abusive behavior for years, possibly as far back as 2000.
The former patients reached a settlement with the university in February. In order for it to be approved, a judge must determine whether the settlement meets the standard of being “fair, reasonable, and adequate” for all parties.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson determined the proposed settlement didn’t meet that standard, writing in a 10-page order Thursday that the agreement left out key financial and procedural information, including an assessment of the risk that the case might head to trial.
Plaintiffs said in court papers seeking approval of the settlement that a trial would be too lengthy and would delay relief for former patients who may wish to avoid trial in order to protect their privacy and avert reliving traumas.
“Nowhere in the settlement documents is there a legitimate assessment of what a potential class member might be able to recover in an individual action, even in vague or broadly estimated terms,” the order said. “The Court requires a more direct assessment of the substantive strength of plaintiffs’ claims and what defenses are available to defendants.”
Wilson ordered that the court be provided with all documents maintained by the university that pertain to the Tyndall scandal, including individual complaints and reports on how the university responded to them.
A revised settlement should also include specific details on the amount of money that each class member should expect to be awarded, the order said. The awards are tiered based on the level of interaction that the patient had with Tyndall.
The information is key because the settlement balance could become quickly exhausted if too many class members receive settlement awards at the highest tier.
Wilson also denied the appointment of a special monitor to oversee the settlement, writing in the order that a monitor might treat class members in an inequitable manner, such as determining award amounts based on how much money is left in the settlement balance as opposed to basing them on evidence presented.
“It may even be appropriate for the settlement agreement and notice to class members to explicitly direct the Special Master not to base compensation awards with an eye toward the $215 million settlement figure,” the order said.
Former patients can receive anywhere between $2,500 and $250,000 if they speak in person with an abuse claims assessor and submit written testimony.
Wilson also wants both parties to explain how former patients’ claims will be adjudicated, adding that a suggested three-person committee tasked with making determinations would be preferable to the current proposal of having the special monitor make determinations.
But if the parties want to go through with a special monitor, they must explain to class members what guarantees are in place to ensure fairness in the process.
The settlement also lacks detailed information on how reforms will be implemented on USC’s campus, the order said, adding that such information could help class members determine whether they want to remain in the class or not.
“Class members need to know exactly what USC’s responsibilities would be on an ongoing basis to monitor, prevent, and respond to abuse committed by staff or other professionals employed by the school,” the order said.
Any proposed class members who disagree with the terms of the settlement can voluntarily withdraw in order to pursue individual lawsuits against the university.
Under the terms of the proposed settlement, USC would be required to undertake a massive policy change in how it identifies, prevents and reports both racial and sexual abuse on campus.
The university would have to hire an independent campus advocate for abuse survivors and run background checks on all its physicians.
Tyndall, who has denied the allegations, resigned in 2017 after 30 years with the university.
Wilson granted both parties 30 days to submit a revised settlement approval motion. The plaintiffs’ lawyers vowed to address the judge’s concerns.
“We appreciate Judge Wilson’s careful scrutiny of this landmark settlement, and look forward to resolving his concerns. As is stated in the order, ‘The court takes no issue with the substantive terms of settlement between plaintiffs and defendants, and the court believes that the proposed settlement, as is, ultimately may be fair and reasonable under the prevailing standards,'” class counsel said in a statement.
“This settlement gives every single woman who saw Tyndall a choice in how they want to participate and hold USC accountable, while also forcing the school to change to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We are confident our renewed motion for preliminary approval will address the court’s concerns, lead to approval of this agreement, and provide these survivors the relief and measure of closure they deserve.”
USC’s attorney Shon Morgan of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, said Wilson’s order isn’t uncommon.
“The court took no issues with the substantive terms of the settlement and it remains on track. It is common for a judge to ask for clarifications, additional information, or minor structural modifications to a class action settlement, and the parties will address Judge Wilson’s comments and prepare appropriate responses,” Morgan said in a statement. “The university continues to believe the federal class action settlement is the best way to bring a fair and respectful resolution to as many former patients as possible.”