We have previously discussed the unprecedented damages awarded against Oberlin College for defaming a small grocery store after the arrest of three African American students for shoplifting. Recently President Carmen Twillie Ambar refused to apologize to the grocery store and the school assured alumni that it would have no difficulty in paying the reduced $25 million. In other words, the President and school simply shrugged and offered neither apologies or reform, including retaining one of the key officials who facilitated the protests and targeting of the store. Now the direct costs are $31.5 million with an award of attorneys fees and that is not counting the huge costs spent on the defense. The records show that Oberlin’s counsel billed twice as many hours as the victorious team for Gibson’s Bakery.
I will not repeat the facts of the controversy, which were detailed in a prior column. Suffice it to say that a jury and a court found that Oberlin defamed a small, family-owned grocery after an African American student named Jonathan Aladin was caught trying to steal a bottle of wine from Gibson’s Bakery, which was established in 1885. Aladin and two other students, Cecilia Whettstone and Endia Lawrence, were arrested and later pleaded guilty to shoplifting and related crimes. Dean of students Meredith Raimondo reportedly joined the massive protests and fueled protests calling the grocery racist. She led efforts to bar any business with the grocery and another contractor was told that it could not do business with the grocery and still maintain a contract with Oberlin.
The version that students and alumni were given was starkly at odds with the record, including the fact that all of the students admitted that the attempted shoplifting and the police issued a record showing no pattern of racial profiling at the grocery. Instead, this is what alumni were told about the incident by the Oberlin Review:
“a Black student attempted to make a purchase at Gibson’s Bakery and was accused of shoplifting. The student ran outside the store and Allyn Gibson, the son of owner David Gibson, followed him. Gibson allegedly tackled the student, and the two got into a physical altercation. Two of the student’s friends saw the altercation and began hitting and pulling on Gibson to get him away from the student.
A customer in the shop saw the altercation and called the Oberlin Police Department out of concern for the students’ safety. When the police arrived, they immediately arrested the three Black students and refused to take statements from some students and witnesses who were present.”
With $25 million in damages as well as huge litigation costs, Oberlin still did not fire Raimondo or, more importantly, apologize to the grocery (and its donors for wasting millions).
The attorneys fees award was twice what Oberlin argued was reasonable.
The Court indicated that the real costs for Oberlin were much higher and that the case warranted high fees for the plaintiffs:
Defendants’ counsel prepared for and tried the same case. … After the complaint was filed, nearly every phase of the case was vigorously contested, including the trial which encompassed twenty-four days over the course of nearly six weeks. Plaintiffs’ counsel’s billing invoices are reflective of, and consistent with, a case of this magnitude.
Gibson’s legal team asked for $6,565,531.
As I have previously written, I am not a fan of these fee and cost award laws, an American version of the “English Rule.”
However, the real costs of this litigation for Oberlin likely exceeded $40 million. Yet, alumni are being told that the school has nothing to apologize or reforms to be made. Of course, the college is still asking for donations as a way of “ensuring that Oberlin College is pursuing a path of sustainability – educationally, financially, and environmentally.” Perhaps the financial sustainability could start with addressing the loss of tens of millions because the administration lacks the courage to confront its own student body and faculty on irresponsible and defamatory actions.
Here is the order: Oberlin Fees Ruling