ELYRIA — Attorneys for Gibson’s Bakery said Thursday that Meredith Raimondo and other Oberlin College administrators knew students planned to protest in front of the bakery hours before the demonstrations started Nov. 10, 2016.
Raimondo, the vice president and dean of students at Oberlin College, received an email from students about 11 p.m. the night before that Gibson’s attorneys called a “declaration of war” against the bakery. Raimondo, in texts, emails and a deposition, said she didn’t see the message until the following morning at which point she contacted other administrators to let them know “what was coming.”
After days of motion hearings and jury selection, which wrapped up Thursday morning, opening statements in the civil trial between Gibson’s Bakery and Oberlin College and Raimondo took place Thursday afternoon at the Lorain County Justice Center.
The trial is expected to last as long as a month and as many as 100 witnesses could testify.
In 2017, Gibson’s Bakery filed a lawsuit against the college and Raimondo, vice president and dean of students, for libel, slander, interference with business relationships, interference with contracts, deceptive trade practices, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring and trespass.
Judge John Miraldi tossed the slander counts and deceptive trade practices against the college and Raimondo. The count alleging negligent hiring, retention and supervision against Raimondo was tossed as well.
In his opening statement, Lee Plakas, representing Gibson’s, referred to the series of incidents leading up to and through the protests as “teachable moments” that college administrators ignored and instead chose to “pour gasoline on the fire” and “fan the flames.”
Raimondo, Plakas said, could have talked with the students and stopped the protests and instead got involved with the protest herself — saying witnesses said she was orchestrating the protests, was on a bullhorn during them and that she passed out a flier that alleged Gibson’s Bakery was a racist establishment.
However, Ron Holman, an attorney for Oberlin College and Raimondo, said Raimondo only monitored the protests and made sure everyone involved was safe. She was there to serve as a liaison between the students and the community.
“She had no choice but to be there,” Holman said.
Holman referred to “The Book” several times during his opening statement, which is “Oberlin College’s Student Regulations, Policies and Procedures,” which he said “lays out a number of policies and procedures for students, but also senior administrators like (Raimondo).”
Raimondo followed the policies spelled out for her, Holman said.
The rift between the bakery and the college began in 2016 when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn Gibson, who is the son of the bakery’s owner, David Gibson. Allyn Gibson followed the student out of the store and the two got into a physical altercation.
Two other students got involved, and police have said when they arrived the three students were hitting Allyn Gibson while he was on the ground.
The incident became racially charged because Allyn Gibson is white and the students are black. All three students pleaded guilty in August 2016 to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.
Plakas said that after the three students were arrested, multiple administrators from the college went to the Oberlin Police Department “to support the students” even though there was no question the students had committed a crime.
Administrators with Oberlin College also sent communications to the college’s Board of Trustees for the college to “come up with money to pay for the attorney fees and hiring attorneys” for the three students, Plakas said. A limousine was hired by Raimondo to drive at least one of the students from Oberlin to Columbus and back to meet with an attorney there about the case.
Plakas also said Raimondo gave the OK for gloves for the protestors to be purchased with college funds so they could continue protesting in the cold weather. Holman disputed that contention, saying there is no proof that mittens or pizza was purchased for the protestors.
As part of the lawsuit, Gibson’s alleges that Raimondo and Oberlin College interfered with the business relationships for the bakery, a relationship that had started before World War I, according to Plakas. The college suspended its business with Gibson’s in the days after the protests.
Holman said the college temporarily suspended its business with Gibson’s as a way to quell a volatile situation with the students. Oberlin College resumed ordering products from the bakery in January 2017 and continued to do so until the lawsuit was filed in November of that year.
Plakas also pointed out to the eight-member jury — civil trials have fewer than criminal trials — that the college tried to force the bakery to drop the criminal charges against the students. He read an email sent by Oberlin College Special Assistant to the President for Community and Government Relations Tita Reed to other administrators in regards to that allegation.
“Can we draft a legal agreement clearly stating that once charges are dropped, orders will resume?” Reed said in the email. “I’m baffled by their combined audacity and arrogance to assume the position of victim.”
Holman said Gibson’s already was losing money in the years leading up the protests and that the incident with the students was not to blame for its problems. The business, he said, lost an average of $3,697 a year for the seven years prior to the protest.
Prior to the opening statements, Miraldi explained to the jury that the only defamatory statements that can be considered for a legal claim were what was printed on the flier passed out by students at the protests and a student senate resolution.
“If you find that the defendants published these written statements, and if you find the defendants acted with actual malice, it is presumed that the plaintiffs’ reputation was harmed,” he said. “You may award plaintiffs an amount of money that you decide is reasonable and fair for the plaintiffs’ injures directly caused by the defendants’ defamatory written statements.”
Miraldi also told the jurors that “verbal or oral statements, chants or words that were made at the protests” have been determined by the court to be constitutionally protected opinion “and therefore cannot form the basis of a legal claim.”
Testimony in the trial is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. today.
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