Cornell’s New General Counsel Is Oberlin College In-House Lawyer Responsible For Gibson’s Bakery Case
Donica Thomas Varner became notorious for mishandling the Gibson’s Bakery case, including a bizarre email bashing the jury after the compensatory verdict but before the punitive phase.
Donica Thomas Varner, currently General Counsel at Oberlin College, has been appointed the General Counsel of Cornell University, it was just announced.
Varner is the General Counsel of Oberlin College and was responsible for overseeing the Gibson’s Bakery litigation.
Varner became infamous for an email she sent between the compensatory and punitive phases. We covered it in Oberlin College mass email criticizing Jurors could influence Punitive Damages Hearing in Gibson’s Bakery case:
The statement was contained in a mass email sent to alumni (and possibly others) criticizing the jury verdict and repeating the same stale defenses that failed at trial (emphasis added):
Dear Members of the Oberlin Community:
I am writing to update you on the lawsuit that Gibson Bros., Inc. filed against Oberlin College and Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo in the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas in November 2017.
Following a trial that spanned almost a full month, the jury found for the plaintiffs earlier today.
We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.
Neither Oberlin College nor Dean Meredith Raimondo defamed a local business or its owners, and they never endorsed statements made by others. Rather, the College and Dr. Raimondo worked to ensure that students’ freedom of speech was protected and that the student demonstrations were safe and lawful, and they attempted to help the plaintiffs repair any harm caused by the student protests.
As we have stated, colleges cannot be held liable for the independent actions of their students. Institutions of higher education are obligated to protect freedom of speech on their campuses and respect their students’ decision to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Oberlin College acted in accordance with these obligations.
While we are disappointed with the outcome, Oberlin College wishes to thank the members of the jury for their attention and dedication during this lengthy trial. They contributed a great deal of time and effort to this case, and we appreciate their commitment.
Our team will review the jury’s verdict and determine how to move forward.
Donica Thomas Varner
Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary
The email became an issue in court, and there was examination of Oberlin witnesses about it:
As far as the little bit of legal maneuvering, Judge John R. Miraldi had ruled yesterday that an email written by Donica Thomas Varner, Oberlin College’s Vice President and General Counsel, who has been in court since day one, was inadmissible. The email was sent to thousands of alums an hour or so after the jury came back with their $11.2 million verdict against the college, and was very much against the jury’s decision. The judge wouldn’t admit it because “this was a letter sent by the Oberlin general counsel after the verdict. We are talking about the actions of the defendants that demonstrated malice. What we will use is only what was litigated in court.”
Varner’s email said this in one part: “We are disappointed with the verdict and regret that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.”
Plakas got around the judge’s ruling that the email was not admissible by calling Varner to the stand to discuss school policy. He referred to the email in vague terms, but was able to ask Varner a few questions without acknowledging the email itself to the jury. He even asked her about the quotation above, specifically if she still “regrets that the jury did not agree with the clear evidence our team presented.”
“Yes,” she answered, before Oberlin College attorneys objected.
As Oberlin College General Counsel, Varner was the key legal person overseeing the Gibson’s Bakery litigation. That is hardly a positive considering how the case was mishandled (regardless of what happens on the appeal.)
Yet Cornell in its announcement touts Verner’s Oberlin College experience:
“Donica’s many years of leadership in higher education, and her deep knowledge of the complex legal issues affecting academic institutions in the U.S. and internationally, make her a wonderful fit for Cornell,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “Her breadth of expertise in areas including student affairs, immigration, litigation and international engagement will serve her well as she oversees Cornell’s diverse legal landscape. She will be a tremendous asset to the university, and we look forward to having her join us.”
As university counsel, Varner will represent and advise all Cornell boards, senior officers and other officials and units. She will oversee offices in Ithaca and New York City, leading approximately 20 attorneys and other staff who provide in-house legal services, as well as selecting and overseeing all outside legal counsel retained to represent the university.
“Cornell’s extraordinary academics, combined with its vigorous commitment to supporting an open, diverse and inclusive community, have shaped an environment of so many exciting possibilities,” Varner said. “I’m deeply inspired by the vision and values of Cornell, and delighted to be joining its outstanding leadership team.”
Said Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Board of Trustees: “Donica is an impressive and immensely qualified choice for Cornell, and we will benefit from her expertise and guidance. Her years of experience at the University of Michigan and Oberlin College will greatly benefit our Ithaca and New York City campuses, and her advice, leadership and counsel will be appreciated by our many trustees, senior officers and university officials who typically have to navigate complex regulatory environments.”
Varner also would have overseen the litigations brought by male students against the college:
This is a strange appointment considering Varner’s controversial past.DONATE
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