Login | November 26, 2020

Oberlin College appealing Gibson’s Bakery jury verdict

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 13, 2020

Attorneys representing Oberlin College and a top administrator at the Ohio school are appealing a recording-setting defamation-related judgment that awarded $44.2 million to Gibson’s Bakery (Gibson Bros. Inc.) in a dramatic legal battle that has attracted national media attention as the more than 130-year-old family business fought to defend itself against accusations of racism.
The June 2019 verdict, which has since been reduced to about $25 million due to state damages caps, followed a weekslong trial in Lorain County Common Pleas Court in which attorneys from the Summit County law firms of Tzangas Plakas Mannos (TPM) and Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty Co. (KWGD) served as co-counsel to the bakery and its owners.
“The verdict was the largest defamation award in the state’s history,” said TPM Managing Partner Lee Plakas. “We have filed a separate appeal, asking the court to restore the original $33 million punitive judgment, in that applying the caps to an institution with more than $1 billion in net assets is unconstitutional as applied.”
The jury originally awarded $11,074,000 in compensatory damages and $33,232,500 in punitive damages. After state caps were applied, the verdict was lowered to $25,049,000. Additionally, Judge John Miraldi awarded $6,271,395 in attorney fees and $294,136.79 in litigation expenses.
Both appeals are pending before the 9th District Court of Appeals and will be decided later this fall.
Located at 23 W. College St. in Oberlin, Ohio, Gibson’s Bakery has been a fixture in the community since it opened in 1885. Known for its homemade candy, donuts and cookies, the bakery had enjoyed a long-standing positive relationship with the college and its students, who frequented the establishment on a regular basis for over 100 years.
But that all changed on Nov. 9, 2016 when an African American student was caught shoplifting bottles of wine and also attempting to use a fake ID to purchase an alcoholic beverage at Gibson’s Bakery.
According to an Oct. 8, 2019 press release on Oberlin College’s website, “A member of the Gibson family confronted the student, pursued the student out of the store into nearby Tappan Square, and engaged in a physical altercation with the student, detaining him until police arrived.
“Two other students also got physically involved in the incident.”
KWGD attorney Owen Rarric said the bakery didn’t break any laws that day, pointing out that the clerk acted lawfully when following the shoplifter out of the store.
In fact, he said when police came around the corner, “they found the store clerk on his back with the three Oberlin students kicking and pummeling the clerk.”
All three students (Jonathan Aladin, Cecelia Whettston and Endia Lawrence) were arrested and charged in connection with the incident.
“Oberlin never called the three students as witnesses at any stage of the case to dispute their crimes nor their attack on the store clerk,” said Plakas.
The students would go on to admit their guilt and that their arrests were not the result of racial profiling by the Gibsons during a plea and sentencing hearing, but not before a series of protests and boycotts occurred.
In the October 2019 press release the college states, “Within 18 hours, students had organized a protest. The College took steps, consistent with its protest policy, to ensure that it was peaceful and sought to de-escalate tensions in the community.”
But Plakas said that account couldn’t be further from the truth. He said the college not only canceled a longstanding contract with the bakery, but key officials, including Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo also began a campaign to defame and bully owners David Gibson (now deceased) and his then-89-year-old father, Allyn W. Gibson by publishing statements that they assaulted the students and had a history of racial profiling and discrimination.
“Gibson’s Bakery depends on three major sources of income—the college, its students and the townspeople,” said Plakas. “All three of these sources were severely impacted by the reckless actions of the school and its administrators.”
During the trial, Plakas said the jury heard evidence that college officials distributed flyers containing “horrendous false statements” and, on a bullhorn, encouraged students to make additional copies of the flyers in the college’s administration offices.
“In an effort to save the bakery’s reputation, David Gibson pleaded with the college to issue a retraction, but they refused, even after the students had admitted their crimes,” said Plakas.
The owners initially sought assistance from KWGD attorney Terry Moore, the Gibson family’s longtime lawyer, with KWGD attorneys Rarric, Matthew Onest and Jackie Caldwell also handling various aspects of the case.
TPM attorneys Plakas, Brandon McHugh and Jeananne Wickham, and local counsel James Taylor, were asked to serve as co-counsel in the prosecution of the bakery’s claims against Oberlin College.
On Nov. 7, 2017, the firms filed a complaint on behalf of the owners of the bakery against Oberlin College and its Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, asserting claims for libel, tortious interference with business relations and intentional infliction of emotional distress. 
Oberlin College hired the law firms of Taft Stettinius & Hollister and Wickens Herzer Panza to represent their interests in the case. The trial proceedings began in late April 2019.
“Our team took part in nearly 70 depositions, reviewed over 270,000 pages of discovery documents/data and filed dozens of motions and briefs,” said Plakas.
Months after the jury verdict was announced, Oberlin College filed an appeal on Oct. 8, 2019. Shortly after, bakery owner David Gibson, who unbeknownst to the jury was battling Pancreatic cancer during the trial, lost his battle with the disease and passed away.
In a June 5 post on its website, Oberlin discusses its decision to fight the jury verdict, stating, “Oberlin pursued this appeal because it was deprived of a fair trial and to vindicate core constitutional protections for freedom of speech.
“In its filing, the College argues that numerous errors occurred during trial that prevented the jury from hearing key facts surrounding the November 2016 incident involving three students and a member of the Gibson family, and the student protests following that incident. Those significant errors deprived Oberlin of a fair trial.
“Oberlin requests that the judgment be reversed and entered in Oberlin’s favor based on well-established constitutional law protecting freedom of speech. The College also argues that it was wrongly held responsible for the opinions students expressed as part of their protests.”
“We are a fourth-generation business,” said Lorna Gibson, who took over the bakery’s operation after her husband David passed away. “Until this shoplifting incident, we had a very good relationship with the community and the college.
“We are now struggling to survive,” she said. “We used to have over 25 employees and are now down to just four, including myself. We have survived World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and the Great Recession. Now I am trying my best to hold on through this crisis.”
In its 2019 press release, Oberlin Board Chairman Chris Canavan stated, “The College and the town of Oberlin have been vital to one another since 1833, and we value our long-term relationships with the town’s citizens and businesses. We also have a mission to support free inquiry, allow faculty and students to ask difficult questions and to reach and express their own conclusions.”
The college’s legal team for the appeal includes First Amendment attorneys Lee Levine and Seth Berlin from the Washington D.C. office of the national law firm Ballard Spahr and appellate attorneys Benjamin Sassé and Irene Keyse-Walker from the Cleveland office of Tucker Ellis.
The attorneys will work with trial counsel from Taft Stettinius & Hollister and Wickens Herzer Panza.
“The verdict and judgment in this case set a precedent that endangers free speech on campuses and for all Americans,” Levine said in the 2019 press release. “The jury was allowed to award substantial damages for speech that is protected by the Constitution.”
“This case never should have gone to the jury in light of the heightened speech protections in the Ohio Constitution, and the trial court made several procedural errors during trial that led to this verdict,” Sassé added in the 2019 press release.
Plakas said Oberlin’s statements ignore the legal issues and evidence, which were at issue in the trial, “apparently in an attempt to revise history and re-position their appeal.
“This always has been a tort case about the conduct of college administrators, not students. The jury entered verdicts for intentional interference of business relationships, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation by the college. No students were defendants and in fact, not one Oberlin College student was called as a witness in the case.”
“The jury verdict confirms that our society expects college administrators to be the adults in the room, not enablers nor aiders and abettors of bad conduct,” said Rarric.
As of the publication of this story, the appellate arguments had not been scheduled, but were expected to take place in the middle or latter part of November.