HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Northern Kentucky University wants the federal judge thrown off a case involving the university's handling of a student's sexual assault charges.
NKU said the law firm representing the unnamed woman who accused the university of mishandling her rape allegations hired U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman's grandson while the case was pending.
The potential conflict of interest, which NKU's lead attorney learned about at a cocktail party in March, disqualifies Bertelsman from overseeing the case, according to the filing.
"As the conversation with Judge Bertelsman ended, he stated something to the effect of, 'You know my grandson is working for Kevin (Murphy, lead attorney for the plaintiff) and they had erected a 'Chinese wall.'' I was not aware of Kevin Murphy's law had hired the judge's grandson," Jeffrey Mando, NKU's attorney, said in an affidavit filed late Thursday.
Murphy and the judge failed to disclose the hiring at the beginning of the proceedings and failed to list the grandson's employment on the firm's website, the filings said.
NKU says in the filings that Bertelsman's impartiality "might reasonably be questioned."
"The four-person law firm representing the woman who is accusing NKU of misconduct hired U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman's grandson, while the case was pending, according to a court filing.
Reached Friday, Bertelsman said judicial ethics prevent him from commenting on a pending case.
Murphy said the grandson's position was misstated by NKU. He is a law clerk, not an associate lawyer, because he has not yet been licensed to practice law in Kentucky. He said his status as a clerk was the reason that he was not added to the firm's website, not because the firm was trying to conceal his employment.
"We believe this is a desperate and baseless move to avoid that and a trial on the merits, which is just around the corner," Murphy said.
He said federal law plainly allows for the grandson to be part of the firm while the case is before Bertelsman as long as he is not working on the case. And he said the grandson is not working on the case.
The plaintiff, identified anonymously as “Jane Doe,” said a male NKU student assaulted and raped her in fall 2013.
Calling NKU’s Title IX policies “dated,” the suit says that, despite a university panel’s ruling that the woman was telling the truth about the incident, the university “did next to nothing to protect (her) from further anxiety and harassment,” charging the punishment handed the male student would have been more appropriate if he had been found guilty of jaywalking.
“(NKU) absolutely failed her," Murphy said. "NKU failed her miserably.”
According to the suit, the student accused of the assault was suspended “in abeyance,” which the suit charges is “no suspension at all.”
Asked about the case, Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor, said he needed more details to answer definitively about situation, but said judge's are held to a high standard regarding conflicts of interest.
"The simple story is that judges not only have an obligation to avoid actual conflict of interest but also to avoid the perception," he said. "The prospect that a lawyer in a case has hired a judge's grandson raises red flags."