A legal action for $5 million in damages in which a woman claims she was sexually abused by a University of Sudbury professor in 1979 is caught up in Laurentian University’s insolvency proceedings.
The matter was briefly discussed in an April 1 court hearing presided over by Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz, the judge who has heard most matters involving Laurentian’s insolvency.
However, the matter was adjourned Friday at the request of one of the involved lawyers.
According to documents filed before the courts, the woman, Barbara Robinson, alleges she was sexually abused by religion professor John Sahadat as a 26-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Sudbury, one of the federated universities operating on Laurentian’s campus.
Sahadat passed away in May 2021.
Robinson made a $5 million claim against Laurentian University regarding this matter through its insolvency claims process last summer.
A $5-million legal action was also filed by Robinson on March 14 against the University of Sudbury.
None of the allegations made by Robinson have been proven in court.
The court documents outlining the legal action against the University of Sudbury said the relationship Sahadat developed with Robinson in his “position of trust and authority” allowed him to be alone with the plaintiff “and to exert undue influence and control over her, and to prey upon her by sexually abusing her.”
It’s alleged that Sahadat forced the plaintiff to engage in sexual intercourse, and she became pregnant as a result of being sexually abused by Sahadat, and subsequently suffered a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion.
Robinson allegedly suffered a number of damages and losses as a result of the alleged sexual abuse, including depression, impairment of her ability to complete an education appropriate to her abilities and impairment of her ability to earn an income to support herself.
The plaintiff alleges that the University of Sudbury “was negligent and failed in its duty” toward her, including by failing to properly supervise Sahadat and failing to warn Robinson and others of the “propensities of Sahadat.”
She also alleges that the University of Sudbury also failed to “take steps to investigate the activities of Sahadat, once it was fully aware of his misconduct, in an effort to locate and assist any victims,” including herself.
The court documents surrounding Robinson’s legal actions are included on the website dedicated to Laurentian’s insolvency proceedings under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (or CCAA).
A March 24 letter on the issue from Andrew Hanrahan of Thornton Grout Finnigan, Laurentian’s insolvency counsel, addressed to Robinson’s lawyer, Aron Zaltz of Preszler Injury Lawyers, sheds light on why that is.
It said that on July 28 of last year, Robinson made a $5-million claim against Laurentian as part of the CCAA claims process for creditors of the insolvent university.
“Ms. Robinson’s claim alleges that she is a former student at Laurentian and that, in or around 1979, she was sexually assaulted by Professor John Sahadat, who Ms. Robinson alleges was employed by Laurentian,” said the letter, from Laurentian counsel Andrew Hanrahan, addressed to Robinson’s lawyer, Aron Zaltz.
However, on Feb. 1, the court-appointed monitor of Laurentian’s insolvency proceedings issued a Notice of Revision or Disallowance (NORD), disallowing Robinson’s claim in full.
In the NORD, the monitor noted that Sahadat was never an employee of Laurentian, but rather appears to have been an employee of the University of Sudbury.
On Feb. 11, Robinson delivered a dispute notice to the monitor. The monitor referred the claim for resolution to J. Douglas Cunningham, a court-appointed claims officer.
In accordance with Cunningham’s direction, the parties submitted legal briefs on a threshold legal issue: whether Laurentian could be found vicariously liable for the alleged actions of Sahadat as set out in the claim.
The parties have each requested that Cunningham withhold his determination of this threshold issue pending determination of what’s known as a lift stay motion.
That lift stay motion, filed by Robinson on March 16, would seek to lift the stay of proceedings (which protects LU from its creditors) against Laurentian in relation to this matter, and add Laurentian as a defendant to the action against the University of Sudbury.
A factum from Laurentian said that Robinson is seeking the lift stay motion so that she may pursue her claim against Laurentian in litigation in the Ontario Superior Court.
Laurentian’s lawyers said the original motion indicates that if the stay is lifted and Laurentian is added as a defendant to the action against the University of Sudbury, Robinson would limit her recovery on any judgment obtained will be limited to “such insurance proceeds” available to Laurentian, and she not seek to recover against LU’s “current or future assets.”
However, the letter from Thornton Grout Finnigan indicated that Laurentian has been unable to locate the applicable insurance policy from 1979, despite extensive efforts to do so.
Laurentian also has no funds that are traceable to self-insurance (where an organization sets aside a pool of money to be used to remedy an unexpected loss), said LU’s lawyer.
“We are not aware that any funds were ever specifically segregated or maintained in respect of self-insurance, however, to the extent that they ever were, Laurentian no longer possesses such funds and is insolvent,” said the letter.
“In short, we are not aware of any insurance proceeds that would be available to indemnify Ms. Robinson’s claim against Laurentian, nor do we anticipate that any will be located in the future.”
A factum from Laurentian filed March 31 said that “in Laurentian’s view, the relief sought in the Lift Stay Motion is not the appropriate way to proceed in the circumstances …
“Laurentian has conducted an extensive search and has not located any insurance policy that would potentially indemnify Ms. Robinson’s claim.”
The University of Sudbury also filed a factum on this matter March 31. As part of this factum, a letter from counsel for the University of Sudbury, Ronald Caza, indicated that his client is an “interested party” in this matter.
Caza also said the University of Sudbury is also considering bring its own motion “seeking leave to lift the stay of proceedings” in relation to the Robinson matter “to either cross-claim against Laurentian University of Sudbury (“LU”) if the Court orders that LU be added as a defendant in the Robinson vs Université de Sudbury litigation, or to add LU as a third party should the Court not order that LU be added as a defendant.”
A cross-claim is a claim brought by one defendant against another in the same proceeding.
The letter said the University of Sudbury’s position is that “LU’s presence is necessary in the Robinson vs. Université de Sudbury litigation to enable the court to adjudicate effectively and completely on the issues in that proceeding.”
Robinson’s lawyer, Aron Zaltz, said during the Friday court hearing he had only received notice March 31 that the University of Sudbury was seeking permission to intervene in this matter, and as such, he needed time to adjust the relief he’s seeking from the court accordingly.
Zaltz later told Sudbury.com in an email*** that the University of Sudbury has taken a position which suggests that not only should Robinson's claim not be limited to insurance proceeds, but that it is actually exempt from the CCAA altogether.
"While University of Sudbury's approach is certainly consistent with its own financial interests, it is also helpful for Ms. Robinson insofar as it presents an opportunity to claim against LU without limiting that claim in accordance with the availability of insurance," Zaltz wrote.
He said the University of Sudbury's approach is based on a "broad and liberal interpretation" of a section of the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA), which could allow an individual to access damages against a "debtor company" under the CCAA. These damages would have to have been awarded by a court in civil proceedings related to "bodily harm intentionally inflicted, or sexual assault."
"This provision of the CCAA has never been tested before the courts," Zaltz wrote. "The language of the section may imply that Ms. Robinson would have already had to have obtained an award of damages from the courts in order to claim damages under this provision.
"However, insofar as Ms. Robinson has a strong interest in testing this provision - in terms of whether it would allow for a complete exemption of her claim from the CCAA process, without limiting LU's liability to insurance- she obtained the adjournment this morning so that she could return the motion next week on broader grounds, testing the interpretation of this law for the first time."
Laurentian’s lawyer, Andrew Hanrahan, said during the hearing the university’s counsel had some discussions with Zaltz on April 1 about terms of an adjournment “that would be acceptable to us.
“Our main concern is we want to make sure that there's not further delays with respect to having this motion determined,” he said.
Chief Justice Morawetz scolded the involved parties for the delay, saying that the matter was scheduled for April 1 weeks ago, and the commercial court is “overrun.”
He instructed the involved lawyers to “get your act together” and come up with a schedule “to have this matter heard as soon as possible,” and provided his availability for next week.
Zaltz later provided Sudbury.com with a schedule for this matter that was worked out by the lawyers April 1. Another hearing on the matter will take place Friday, April 8.
If the motion to lift the stay of proceedings in the case is denied, it will immediately return to Laurentian's claims process under the CCAA for adjudication, with the University of Sudbury reserving its rights to intervene in the claims process.
***This story has been updated with more information from Barbara Robinson's lawyer, including his reasons for asking that the matter be adjourned until next week.