How much of USC’s sweeping sexual abuse investigation will stay secret?
When USC’s trustees tapped Rick Caruso last May to lead the university out of the crisis brought on by sexual abuse allegations against a campus gynecologist, his first act was to hire a prestigious law firm to conduct “a thorough and independent investigation.”
He pledged that the inquiry by O’Melveny & Myers would conclude by the time students returned for the fall semester. Much has changed at USC since then, including the resignation of one president and the appointment of another.
But that highly touted investigation into Dr. George Tyndall remains unfinished, and it’s unclear whether any of the law firms’ findings will ever be shared with the physician’s alleged victims.
That news was delivered Monday at a federal court hearing after a judge overseeing a class-action lawsuits pressed an attorney for the university about the status of the investigation.
“To my knowledge, that report has not been completed,” USC attorney Shon Morgan told U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson. Morgan did not provide a timeline for when O’Melveny would wrap up its investigation but said that ultimately USC may keep the results confidential, arguing that it is covered by attorney-client privilege.
The status of the O’Melveny report was one of several issues Wilson raised about a proposed $215-million class-action settlement between USC and thousands of Tyndall’s former patients. The judge declined to grant preliminary approval of the deal, saying he needed more information from lawyers before making a final ruling.
“I have carefully considered the proposed settlement, and I have serious concerns regarding the settlement as presented,” Wilson said at the start of the 90-minute hearing.
Caruso told The Times on Monday that the O’Melveny investigation was taking longer than expected, and he said the university was being sensitive to the ongoing criminal inquiry into Tyndall by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Caruso said that he still plans to make part of the eventual report public. Meanwhile, he and other trustees have received a briefing on O’Melveny’s findings and recommendations for reform.
“It’s not yet done,” Caruso said of the firm’s review. “My intent and promise was that the board and university would be transparent and I plan on living up to that promise.”
USC negotiated the settlement with a group of plaintiffs’ attorneys last fall that would provide guaranteed payouts of at least $2,500 to every student who saw Tyndall for women’s healthcare from 1989 to 2016. During that time, an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 students and alumnae saw Tyndall at USC.
Tyndall has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. After the hearing, USC said in a statement that it would work to address the issues identified by the judge.
“We continue to believe that the federal class action settlement offers a fair and reliable alternative to individual litigation in state court,” the statement said.
The agreement has come under fire from a band of other lawyers who represent about 650 women suing USC in state court. They have called the settlement too small and premature, given that plaintiffs have not conducted an exhaustive review of USC’s internal files. Wilson denied their attempts to intervene in the class-action case at the hearing but said he was taking into account their arguments.
Among his concerns was how the parties arrived at the $215-million figure. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Steve Berman, said he had sought more, but that “USC drew a line.” Morgan, the university lawyer, said USC conducted focus groups and asked hundreds of women about what they felt was fair compensation for various hypothetical misconduct allegations.
The settlement pays all women who saw Tyndall for gynecology $2,500 even if they had no complaints about their care. Lawyers for USC and the plaintiffs said the base compensation was to acknowledge that given the allegations against Tyndall, simply being his patient amounted to damage. Wilson referred to the gynecologist’s alleged misconduct during his career as “the act of a monster doctor.”
Women who accuse Tyndall of misconduct, from off-color remarks to inappropriate pelvic exams, are eligible for larger awards, with the specific payout to be determined by a special master. The maximum amount any former patient can receive is $250,000.
In response to The Times reporting last year, USC acknowledged that Tyndall had been the subject of multiple complaints from students and staff. So far the university has declined to reveal the specifics of those reports or give detailed accounts of how administrators responded. In negotiating the class-action settlement, the university provided plaintiffs’ attorneys with a set of internal documents, including some complaints and internal reviews of Tyndall by administrators.
The documents were filed under seal in Wilson’s court but have not been provided to Tyndall’s patients or the public. The Times filed a motion last week, arguing that the public had a right to see the documents and asking him to unseal them. Wilson is expected to rule on the newspaper’s request later this month.
Lawyers who oppose the class-action settlement have seized on the lack of disclosure in arguing that the deal is flawed because it does not hold the university accountable.
In the hearing, Wilson asked attorneys how many complaints USC received during Tyndall’s 27 years at the student health clinic. Berman told the judge the number was 18, prompting rows of attorneys suing USC in other courts to shake their heads and sigh, in exaggerated disagreement. USC’s lawyer, Morgan, suggested the figure was much lower and after the proceeding, Berman said 18 was a “ballpark” figure and he did not know the exact number.
John Manly, one of the lead lawyers in the separate state court cases against USC and Tyndall, blasted their comments as uninformed and deceptive, saying there were “dozens” of complaints.
“To tell the court there’s five, or six or 18 is a misrepresentation. There were many women that complained,” Manly said. “If I were USC, I’d be very, very concerned that what I told a federal judge is the truth.”
When it was commissioned last year, the O’Melveny review was to specifically examine “reporting failures” that allowed Tyndall to remain employed. USC only forced him out of the clinic in 2016 after a nurse reported him to the rape crisis center. She told The Times she had repeatedly complained about him to supervisors.
As proof that it wanted a serious and credible investigation, USC noted that O’Melveny partner Apalla Chopra would lead the investigation. Chopra had done high-profile work on sexual assault allegations for the University of Virginia and Wynn Resorts.
She did not return messages seeking comment Monday.
Class-action plaintiff Shannon O’Conner, a 1995 graduate who said she complained to a nurse about Tyndall but was ignored, traveled from Texas to attend the hearing. She said she left feeling that Wilson was asking good questions and not rushing the process
“It gave me a lot of confidence in the judge,” she said.
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