Witnesses in the upcoming trial over Columbia University’s retirement plan can’t use the Covid-19 pandemic to avoid testifying in person, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York ruled.
“The COVID-19 pandemic itself does not alone constitute ‘good cause’ or ‘compelling circumstances’ to allow witnesses to testify remotely rather than personally in court,” Judge George B. Daniels said. His order, issued Thursday, comes less than two weeks before the 28,000-person class action is scheduled to begin trial on April 12.
Daniels ordered all designated trial witnesses to testify in person unless the parties agree otherwise, or unless he finds “compelling circumstances to permit a particular witness to testify by contemporaneous transmission from a different location.”
The ruling comes in response to the parties’ disagreement over whether 15 of Columbia’s witnesses would have to appear in person for the trial. On Monday, the plan participants filed a motion arguing that these witnesses should be forced to tell Daniels whether they’ve received a Covid-19 vaccine, so that he could decide whether they had a valid reason for avoiding an in-person appearance.
The Columbia defendants opposed the motion. “Plaintiffs falsely claim that the witnesses are engaged in ‘pretense’ to avoid in-person testimony,” they said. “The pandemic is not pretense. It presents a real threat to health and safety, and these witnesses, like many others across the country, are reasonable to request video testimony over in-person appearances for this reason.”
Daniels denied the motion, instead ordering fully in-person testimony without regard to vaccination status.
The lawsuit claims Columbia employees lost money because of the defendants’ retirement plan mismanagement. Last spring, Daniels allowed the case to go to trial.
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, 4/1/21.