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MBA motion to dismiss is denied
Mount Bachelor Academy faces lawsuit involving 17 former students who allege abuse while they attended the school
February 28, 2013
A multiple-plaintiff lawsuit against Mount Bachelor Academy (MBA) can now move forward after its former school owners failed to get the case dismissed.
Last Friday, Judge Daniel J. Ahern denied a motion filed by Barry Weiss, the Morris and Barry Weiss family trusts, and College Health Enterprises to dismiss multiple abuse charges from 17 former students.
The former school owners argued that 2009 Oregon legislation that extended the statute of limitations for child abuse victims from age 24 to 40 (House Bill 2827) was not intended to apply to people abused before 2010. Ahern did not agree.
“The changes that have been made historically to ORS 12.117 have been to expand child abuse victims’ right to bring a cause of action, not constrict it,” he said in a written statement. “We have no reason to cut off relief to child abuse victims, and every reason to believe that Oregon wanted to make it more likely that those abused as children find compensation and healing through the civil justice system.”
Attorney Kelly Clark of O’Donnell, Clark, and Crew LLP, who is representing the plaintiffs, called the decision a big win for the students.
“While we did not think that Mount Bachelor Academy’s arguments carried any water, there was always a chance that the court might not see it that way,” he said.
The lawsuit, filed around November 2011, claims that the programs used by the school degraded and humiliated the troubled teens that attended it. The therapy allegedly included forcing teenagers who had suffered prior sexual abuse to engage in role-playing that demanded that they act in a promiscuous manner toward adults and other students of the opposite sex as well as sleep deprivation and verbal abuse.
The plaintiffs are seeking more than $25 million in damages.
Legal action was taken by former students after the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) closed the school in November 2009 amid similar abuse claims. The school has not reopened.
About one year later, MBA and DHS reached a settlement in which DHS modified its findings and the school agreed not to pursue legal action against the agency.
A statement issued by DHS said, “MBA acknowledged that based on evidence available to DHS on Nov. 2, 2009, the agency had reasonable cause to believe that abuse or neglect occurred at the school as uncovered by the investigation.”
Phil Herschman, president of MBA owner Aspen Group, by contrast took the settlement as proof that DHS lacked the justification to investigate the school in the first place.
“DHS have acknowledged with this settlement that in fact there was additional evidence that no abuse had occurred,” he said.
Although multiple former students have sued MBA claiming abuse, other students passionately defended their school shortly after DHS first closed it. Within a week, numerous alumni and parents spoke out in support of MBA and former executive director Sharon Bitz said that more than 100 individual letters with about 200 signatures were filed with DHS. Within that same week, students also launched a Facebook page entitled “Petition to Save MBA” that generated many comments in support of the school.
The 17-person lawsuit is the first of three filed by former students. A 14-plaintiff suit was filed a short time after the first one, and later 20 more people sued the school. O’Donnell, Clark, and Crew LLP is representing all 51 plaintiffs.
Kristian Roggendorf, another attorney with the law firm said that the motion to dismiss is one of two opportunities the defense has to avoid legal repercussions.
“The case goes to discovery,” he said. “We have been going through discovery for quite some time. After we get enough discovery, the defendants will probably go ahead and try and move again to dismiss under what is called summary of judgment.”
Roggendorf explained that the summary of judgment looks at the facts uncovered during the discovery process and determines whether or not the plaintiffs can prove their case. If not, the lawsuit is dismissed.
The discovery process will continue through June, but Roggendorf could not say how long the case will last beyond that point.
“From there, who knows how long the summary of judgment will take,” he said, “and from there, how long will it be between that and scheduling a long jury trial?”
In the meantime, the two sides could reach a settlement. If they do, Roggendorf said they would hope to include the other two lawsuits in the settlement.