Dean Lawrence Mitchell of Case Western Reserve University School of Law has resigned from his post after taking a leave of absence on November 6th amid charges of sexual harassment. Mitchell had previously said he would not resign and cited the support of the University. He also attracted the initial support of individuals like David Lat at Above the Law. However, the university reportedly may now be investigating the matter and a court has rejected Mitchell’s effort to strike large portions of the amended complaint.
Mitchell, a former colleague of mine at George Washington University, noted that past developments make it unlikely that he could resume the deanship with “the same energy and enthusiasm that characterized my earlier service.” Mitchell concluded that “[a]t this point, it is in the best interest of the law school for me to step down as dean . . . I will retain my position as a tenured professor and continue to seek to serve the school however I can.”
The scandal at the school could not come at a worse time for the law school which was ranked as showing one of the sharpest declines in applications in the nation. There are now reports of the University investigating the matter after being criticized for its initial response. That is viewed as a change from its earlier absolute defense of Mitchell. Mitchell has retained one of the leading firms in the area as well as a well-known public relations firm, Dix & Eaton. It is not clear whether the university will pay the fees for the law firm or the public relations firm. The investigation of the matter by the university could reflect a recognition that the earlier response of the University was not sufficient, as claimed by those bringing these allegations. However, the delay in the investigation may not satisfy a jury on the role or record of the university. If the investigation finds support for the allegations, it may magnify the view that it reacted in a biased and obstructionist fashion when the allegations were first raised. If they clear Mitchell, it could be viewed as a tactical move to improve its position in court.
The amended complaint of Law Professor Raymond Ku alleges that Mitchell engaged in sexual harassment and retaliation as Dean, including suggestions of three-some trysts with students and administrators. The complaint further claims relations with students during Mitchell’s tenure at George Washington Law School and notes that he married a student while a law professor. Ku’s allegations have been reportedly affirmed by a former administrator who came with Mitchell to Case Western from GWU, Daniel Dubé. There are also unnamed faculty and students referenced in the complaint. [For Dubé’s affidavit, click here]
The complaint states that a professor reported an allegation from a student that Mitchell had proposed a “threesome” and sexual flirting and harassment by the dean. Media has reported that Daniel Dubé had come forward to say that he is Administrative Staff Member 3 referenced in the complaint. The complaint states that Administrative Member 3 reported Mitchell’s alleged sexual relationship with a law student and that he was then subject to retaliation from Mitchell. The complaint states that he was offered a severance package in exchange for a nondisclosure agreement.
The complaint states that Administrative Staff Member 3 recounted how Mitchell had proposed a threesome with the staff member and his date during a party at Mitchell’s home. Mitchell’s prior tenure at GWU is also part of the complaint: “Before Dean Mitchell arrived at Case Law School to begin his deanship, his reputation preceded him. Members of the search committee and the Case Law School faculty, including Professor Ku, were aware of concerns about Dean Mitchell’s sexual behavior at [George Washington University Law School], including at least one sexual relationship with a law student and other inappropriate and questionable conduct.” [For the record, I was not interviewed by their search committee and gave no information to the school].
Mitchell has denied all of the allegations and his counsel, before answering the complaint, tried to strip the complaint of some allegations, insisting that Ku is a bitter and disgruntled colleague who had it out for him after he beat Ku in the competition for the deanship and is trying “to cover up and distract from his unsatisfactory performance.” The motion sought to “strike certain immaterial, impertinent and scandalous allegations and materials.” The motion insists these “immaterial, impertinent and scandalous allegations are in no way relevant to the limited claim in this case as to whether Ku was retaliated against in his employment, are clearly prejudicial to Dean Mitchell, and must be immediately stricken from the court record to prevent even further harm to Dean Mitchell’s reputation and goodwill.” Ku’s counsel responded to the motion as an effort to shield Mitchell from embarrassment. Cuyahoga County Common Please Judge Peter J. Corrigan denied the motion.
As noted earlier, with the complaint unchanged, the discovery in this matter is likely to be drawn out and bitter. Absent a settlement, this could be a costly and protracted contest.
What is clear is that Mitchell is unlikely to be considered by another law school while these allegations remain unresolved and he now faces two fronts: an investigation at the university and litigation in the courts. Even if he defeats the lawsuit, it will not likely remove the stigma of having controversies involving sexual matters at two different schools. That may cut off an alternative avenue in academia and leave him with the choice of staying on the Case Western faculty permanently or leaving teaching entirely. Faculties tend to be small and insular places — making this a rather awkward relationship going forward.
With the resignation, the University may find Mitchell something of a liability, particularly if the investigation finds merit in the allegations. Mitchell could then negotiate a golden parachute deal to leave the school. Indeed, attorneys will often discourage a resignation in such cases in the hopes of securing such a deal for a lump sum payment (in exchange for tenure surrender) and/or continuing litigation support. That is not necessarily the motivation of Mitchell in this case, who insists that these allegations are simply retaliatory measures of bitter employees. Mitchell is a talented academic with a long list of impressive works in the corporate field. He is also highly ambitious and creative. He is not someone who is likely to willingly fade into obscurity. I expect that he would be marketable at corporate law firms where these allegations may be viewed as less of a problem, particularly if he goes to New York.
Mitchell remains adamant that the allegations are false. It is unclear if a settlement could still be reached. If the university shifts its position against Mitchell, it could seek a settlement with the plaintiffs that includes damaging findings against Mitchell as well as some limited financial settlement with the payment of legal fees. That would leave Mitchell quite isolated. For Mitchell, he may only want vindication given the impact on his career since a settlement would likely require a concession of some wrongdoing. Complicating the matter further the question of those fees if the university adopts a more hostile position.
The resignation will at least bringing closure for the leadership of the school, which needs to deal with both the damage of the scandal and the danger presented by dropping applications. Case Western is a strong school with a talented faculty. It has long been a rock for the local bar. Hopefully, the graduates of the school will rally behind the institution and return even stronger from this period.
Source: National Law Journal (sub.req.)