Does new bill hurt USC victims?

On the USC campus, a view of the Suzanne Dowark Peck School of Social Work. (Photo: Kit Leong, via Shutterstock)

Last fall, the University of Southern California (USC) settled a federal class-action lawsuit filed by women alleging sexual misconduct by the former head gynecologist at the student health center, George Tyndall.

Regarded by many as one of the largest settlements of its kind, the $215 million federal settlement covered every one of Tyndall’s USC patients who received women’s health services during a specific period. I considered the settlement a positive step for survivors and victims’ because every woman was covered unless they opted out of the settlement.

Introduced in February, AB 1510 will create a twenty-four-month window in which lawyers can revive cases that are time-barred by California’s statute of limitations.

Moreover, the settlement is tiered. Individuals could receive $2500, no questions asked. Another tier allowed the option to seek an additional payment of $7,500 to $20,000 by submitting a written claim. A final tier allowed a payment of $7,500 to $250,000 with supporting documentation of Tyndall’s conduct, personal impact, and any resulting injury.

I think the most important part of this agreement is that it attempted to prioritize victims and survivors by giving them privacy, avoiding lengthy trials, and not having to relive their trauma in a public trial.

Unfortunately, a recent bill introduced in the California Assembly and passed in the Judiciary Committee, may undue the benefit to Tyndall’s survivors and victims and in turn support the efforts of predatory lawyers.

Introduced in February, AB 1510 (Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-Grand Terrace) will create a twenty-four-month window in which lawyers can revive cases that are time-barred by California’s statute of limitations, and consequently, sue USC.

The language of the bill defines “sexual misconduct” broadly and creates potential liability for a wide range of industries and organizations. The bill also seeks to invalidate the USC $215 million class action settlement that is pending court approval, and which previously covered all of Tyndall’s former patients, no questions asked.

Another result of this curious legislation is that it creates uncertainty for plaintiffs.

The question becomes – how does this benefit Tyndall’s survivors?

The mediator, Layn Phillips, who oversaw the settlement negotiations, has publicly attested to the fairness of the deal. The settlement effectively waived any statute of limitations restrictions by providing compensation to all of Tyndall’s former patients, again, with no questions asked, regardless of whether or when they saw the doctor. Furthermore, the settlement mandated a series of reforms at USC which will hopefully make it difficult for a similar Tyndall situation to develop again. The financial support and priority given to survivors and victims is something that should be replicated in other federal settlements of this nature.

However, it’s hard to see how AB 1510 will benefit Tyndall’s survivors. The legislation specifically states that any plaintiff who takes part in the federal settlement automatically will have her case revived if she was represented by a non-licensed California attorney. This provision is seemingly designed to penalize plaintiff’s lawyers who worked with USC to devise the settlement and are based out of state.

Another result of this curious legislation is that it creates uncertainty for plaintiffs. The federal settlement, which covers all of Tyndall’s former USC patients, could be as many as 16,000 women and they are included in the settlement unless they expressly “opt out.” Those survivors who fall prey to greedy lawyers and opt out of the federal settlement in favor of suing USC in state court, will be trading the guaranteed payout and privacy of the federal settlement for a public and uncertain outcome in state court.  This only creates more trauma for the survivors and victims.

If AB 1510 successfully passes, the federal settlement will likely collapse. As a result, those 16,000 women will be prevented from receiving the compensation they deserve and may be forced to suffer in silence. This is not the environment many advocates and lawyers for Tyndall’s victims want to create.

The unfortunate reality is that many victims of sexual misconduct and abuse never report because they do not want to endure the pain and exposure with coming forward. Tyndall’s former patients who would prefer to move on with their lives, may not be able to if this legislation comes to fruition. The federal class action settlement already provides for $25 million in fees to be paid to lawyers and provides adequate compensation for their services. It is simply unacceptable to use survivors and leverage their suffering to score a bigger payday in state court.

Editor’s Note: Cherylyn Harley LeBon is a former senior counsel with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

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