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Columbia Loses Bid to Block Live Testimony at Retirement Trial

March 17, 2021, 8:20 PM

An upcoming trial over Columbia University’s retirement plan will include live testimony from the school’s witnesses, a Manhattan federal judge ruled, after rejecting its push for written testimony as a safer, more efficient option during the pandemic.

Judge George B. Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Tuesday resolved a handful of competing motions over the looming trial, which is scheduled to begin April 12.

He mostly denied the parties’ efforts to exclude testimony, and he rejected Columbia’s proposal on witness testimony, which would have allowed defense witnesses to submit direct testimony through affidavits or declarations before facing live cross-examination and redirect.

Columbia painted its move as a health precaution that would save time and reduce “either the risks of infecting trial participants (if the trial is conducted in person) or the inevitable technical delays (if the trial is conducted by virtual means).”

But representatives for the class of 28,000 employees suing over the college’s investment choices decried the proposal as an attempt to “leverage the pandemic” for strategic advantage. They told Daniels it would create a “book-length pile of Defendant’s lawyer drafted narratives” for the court to review “before Plaintiffs step foot in the courtroom.”

The lawsuit claims Columbia employees lost money because of the trustees’ retirement plan mismanagement. Last spring, Daniels allowed the case to go to trial.

Columbia is one of more than 20 prominent universities to be accused of retirement plan mismanagement since 2016. These cases have spawned more than $100 million in settlements, one trial—a victory for New York University—and three major appeals court rulings favoring Northwestern University and employees of the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.

Schlichter Bogard & Denton LLP represents the class. Mayer Brown LLP represents Columbia.

The case is Cates v. Trs. of Columbia Univ., S.D.N.Y., No. 1:16-cv-06524, 3/16/21.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacklyn Wille in Washington at jwille@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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