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Grad student sues Ohio State University, accuses head of Center for Automotive Research of sexual assault

September 6, 2018

Grad student sues Ohio State University, accuses head of Center for Automotive Research of sexual assault

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A female doctoral student is suing Ohio State University and the director of the Center for Automotive Research Giorgio Rizzoni in federal court, claiming Rizzoni sexually assaulted and harassed her repeatedly. 

The lawsuit calls the university investigation into Rizzoni’s behavior a “sham” and claims the university restricted her access to buildings, research and software during the course of the investigation. 

The university is currently under federal scrutiny for its handling of former student athletes’ claims of sexual assault by a former university doctor, Richard Strauss.

The university also made national headlines when the board of trustees suspended head football coach Urban Meyer for three games. Investigators found that Meyer mishandled domestic abuse allegations against former receivers coach Zach Smith.

A trustee quit following the ruling, saying the punishment was too soft. 

What the lawsuit says about Rizzoni

The student, who was recruited by Rizzoni from China in 2014, filed a report last December. He served as her adviser for her doctorate, working on a Ford research contract regarding battery aging for electric vehicles. 

The student worked for two summers as an intern for Ford Motor Co. in Michigan. 

Over the years the student worked with Rizzoni, the lawsuit claims he repeatedly and frequently touched her inappropriately, including on her shoulders, legs and back. The report claims he kissed her on the cheek and details an alleged incident where he grabbed her breast and masturbated, clothed, in front of her. 

He repeatedly asked for meetings during the weekend, which the student refused, the lawsuit says.

Rizzoni also repeatedly threatened the student’s doctorate when he was displeased with her response to his actions, according to the lawsuit. She also claims he manipulated a candidacy hearing so she would fail. 

The lawsuit also says Rizzoni emailed department members and Ford employees, criticizing her.

What the lawsuit says about the investigation

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 31, claims the university’s investigation was designed to favor Rizzoni.

“Parry’s investigation was designed to vindicate Rizzoni — the professor with an endowed chair, a CAR directorship and corporate relationships in the automotive industry that are lucrative to OSU — at the expense of (the student’s) emotional well-being and academic career.” 

At the end of the investigation, a report summarized the results. That report is not available due to federal privacy regulations, OSU spokesman Benjamin Johnson said. 

“Ohio State does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind,” Johnson wrote in an email. “When informed of these allegations, we quickly placed the faculty member in question on leave and launched a thorough investigation.”

The university interviewed 39 witnesses, including faculty, staff and “relevant external individuals.” Investigators found that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

The lawsuit claims many of the individuals interviewed were irrelevant because the assaults and harassment took place in private, and that investigators tried to disparage the student’s character. 

Rizzoni, who has served as the Ford Motor Company Chair in ElectroMechanical Systems for the Center for Automotive Research for almost 20 years, is currently employed at Ohio State and is paid $239,496 annually.

While the grad student’s case was under investigation, the university suspended the office that supported victims of sexual assault in February 2018. An external review found that the university’s Sexual Civility and Empowerment had failed to properly document and report information regarding some sexual assault complaints by students.

Sexual assault allegations at OSU

In the Strauss case, investigators received nearly 150 first-hand accounts of sexual misconduct. Allegations date back to 1979, according to the Associated Press. Strauss worked at the university from 1978 to 1998 and killed himself in 2005.

The university has retained Carpenter Lipps & Leland LLP, a Columbus law firm, to handle three lawsuits filed against the university by former students.

The federal department that handles Title IX complaints opened an investigation into whether Ohio State officials ”(are) responding promptly and equitably to complaints and reports by former students, including allegations that employees knew or should have known about the sexual misconduct and allowed the abuse to continue.”

OSU, its diving team and a former coach were also sued at the beginning of the summer. Those allegations, dismissed last week, accused former coach William Bohonyi of forcing a 16-year-old into a sexual relationship, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

The university announced a new center to handle complaints of sexual violence, misconduct and harassment Aug. 21.

The investigators on the complaints against Rizzoni were Jonathan Parry, a human resources investigator and Kristi Hoge, deputy Title IX Coordinator and manager of employee relations. 

A copy of the lawsuit is not included in this post because it names the victim of the alleged sexual assault and misconduct. 

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