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Oberlin appeals to delay and avoid paying multi-million dollar verdict to bakery it defamed

Although an appellate court recently upheld a verdict that Oberlin College is responsible for tens of millions of dollars in damages for defaming the nearby Gibson’s Bakery, the private Ohio college has now appealed to the state’s supreme court.

An Ohio appeals court ruled in late March that Oberlin College is on the hook for $25 million plus $6.2 million in attorney fees after a jury found the college guilty of engaging in a smear campaign against the local, family-owned bakery.

The college now seeks to avoid the payout through another appeal, although it is unknown when or if the Ohio Supreme Court will hear the appeal. The court battle is the latest update in the years-long war between Oberlin College and Gibson’s Bakery, which sued the school for slander and won.

As The College Fix has previously reported, the fifth-generation-owned bakery in downtown Oberlin had been the target of racism accusations and a massive onslaught of student activist outcry, protests and boycott attempts — some of which Oberlin officials and administrators joined in on — after three African-American students were arrested for stealing two bottles of wine and assaulting a store clerk in 2016.

Even if the Ohio Supreme Court hears the case there is still a chance that the college has to execute the payout, Cornell Law Professor William Jacobson told The College Fix in an email interview. Jacobson has closely followed the case since the controversy began.

Still, the odds are stacked against Oberlin, as the highest court in the state of Ohio only accepts about 10 percent of all cases submitted, according to the Ivy League law professor.

Jacobson is the founder of and a regular contributor to the website “Legal Insurrection,” which follows prominent cases and provides updates and commentary on them. He is also the director of the Securities Law Clinic at Cornell Law School.

“Assuming the Ohio Supreme Court either refuses to hear the case, in which case it is over [and the] Gibsons can collect, or agrees to hear the case but does not grant to stay, then the Gibsons can collect on the bond,” Jacobson told The Fix.

As a result of the recent cross-appeal by Oberlin, though, the nearly $32 million in damages to be received by the Gibson family is in limbo. A bond for the damages has been posted by the college but the family actually receiving said funds is contingent on a final judgment pending appeal.

The official legal term for this is called “stay of execution,” which allows for a delay in the allocation of damages until the appeals process is complete — hence why the college seeks a hearing with the higher court, Jacobson said.

Oberlin argues that the posting of the bond by Zurich American “requires the exhaustion of all appeals before it becomes collectible,” citing the Oberlin attorney’s application filing for an appeal for review and stay with the Ohio Supreme Court.

For Jacobson, the most recent appeal by Oberlin does not negatively impact the Gibsons in light of the initial bond posted by Zurich.

“So, the language of the bond appears to support the Gibsons. The argument of Oberlin College is more of a general plea to maintain the status quo pending whether the Ohio Supreme Court takes the case,” the professor wrote in the most recent Legal Insurrection update on the case.

Absent the stay of execution, “the Gibson’s could obtain an execution on the judgment and start grabbing whatever assets of Oberlin College the local sheriff could find,” Jacobson wrote.

All this began in 2016 when a trio of African American Oberlin students stole wine and attempted to use a fake identification at the bakery, prompting a Gibson family member who was working at the counter to chase and tackle a student outside of the shop.

The altercation occurred a day after Donald Trump was elected president. Tensions were high on campus due to the outcome of the election and what happened at the bakery. The altercation resulted in outrage among the campus community, protests, and a school-sponsored smear campaign against the bakery.

Oberlin College officials bought gloves and provided pizza to protestors. One official printed posters that labeled the bakery as being a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune.

But the “three students arrested at Gibson’s pleaded guilty … to attempted theft and aggravated trespassing and said in statements required by a plea agreement that their actions were wrong and that the store wasn’t racist,” it reported.

MORE: Award to family-owned bakery continues to hang in limbo

IMAGE: WKYC screenshot

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About the Author
Alexander Pease -- University of Massachusetts, Boston