Settlement Announcement in Title IX Lawsuit

On July 5, 2016, The Tennesseean reported a $2.48 million settlement between our clients and the University of Tennessee in an ongoing Title IX lawsuit we filed earlier this year.

The full story is below:

The University of Tennessee­ Knoxville has reached a settlement in a lawsuit about sexual assaults involving student-­athletes, ending a dispute that pitted eight young women against the $126 million football program.

UT will pay the plaintiffs $2.48 million, a sum that also includes fees for their attorneys.

The Tennessean has also posted a video discussing the settlement.

School officials also agreed to the appointment of a special independent commission to review the response to
sexual assaults at all universities within the UT system.

Under the terms of the settlement, the university did not admit to “guilt, negligence or unlawful acts.”

The plaintiffs, in turn, agreed to withdraw two complaints over the university’s handling of sexual assaults filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2015, but it’s unknown whether that will end the ongoing probe of possible violations of federal Title IX rules that govern how colleges and universities must respond to sexual assaults.

Withdrawing a complaint does not necessarily end federal action, an Education Department spokesman said Tuesday. The women and their parents also agreed not to comment on their allegations or the settlement.

The cost of the settlement will be split equally between the university’s central administration and the athletics department — the department at the center of the women’s allegations.

It is the third financial settlement involving the athletics department under the leadership of Dave Hart in two years.

The eight Jane Doe plaintiffs alleged that UT created an environment within the athletics department, especially the football program, that led to sexual assaults and then employed a disciplinary hearing process biased in favor of athletes.

Suit put UT into spotlight

The lawsuit encircled UT football coach Butch Jones, who was accused of calling a player a traitor after the young man helped a woman who said she had been raped. Jones never directly denied using the word “traitor,” but said he would never belittle someone for helping a rape victim. Weeks later, the player transferred to UT­Chattanooga.

The lawsuit put UT in the national media spotlight. In a display of unity, all 16 UT head coaches spoke at a news conference two weeks after the suit was filed to praise the athletics program and its culture, and reassure current and potential students that the campus was safe.

The settlement means that prominent UT coaches including Jones, athletics director and vice chancellor Hart, outgoing Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and President Joe DiPietro will not be deposed or face questioning at a trial.

Only two of the six former athletes — five football players — implicated by the lawsuit faced criminal charges. Former UT players A.J. Johnson and Mike Williams pleaded not guilty to rape charges and are awaiting trial.

However, five of the implicated athletes and one nonathlete named in the federal lawsuit were found by the university’s own internal investigation to have committed sexual assaults, but were allowed to remain on campus, graduate or transfer to other schools while the sexual assault investigations continued, in some cases for years, according to the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, led by Nashville attorney David Randolph Smith, said in a joint statement with UT that he and his clients were “satisfied that, while universities everywhere struggle with these issues, the University of Tennessee has made significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases.”

Smith said he hoped the lawsuit contributed in some small way to UT becoming a leader in sexual assault prevention.

UT battled the lawsuit on mostly procedural grounds after it was filed in February.

The university, represented by Nashville attorney Bill Ramsey, tried to have the case moved to Knoxville. But federal Judge Aleta Trauger dismissed those motions and kept the case in Nashville.

UT also sought to have the bulk of the complaint dismissed, arguing that the precedent-­setting federal case of Simpson v. Colorado University did not apply. Trauger rejected that argument and the case was scheduled for trial in 2018.

In the intervening two years, both sides would have sought discovery documents and depositions of the key coaches, administrators and student­ athletes.
The state has paid more than $220,000 to defend itself and negotiate a settlement in the suit. Officials estimated that if the case had gone to trial, it would have cost as much as $5.5 million.

Tuesday’s $2.48 million settlement includes attorney fees. No tuition, fees, donations or taxpayer dollars will be used. Instead the payout will come from “income generating activities” within the university.

While no details are available on how the payout will be divided between the plaintiffs, attorney fees in such settlements often reach 40 percent.

If the payout were equally divided among all the plaintiffs after attorney fees are paid, the women would each receive about $186,000.

It is likely, however, some plaintiffs will receive more and some less, depending on the severity of individual claims.

Creating awareness

On Tuesday, university officials praised the agreement.

“Like many institutions we are not perfect, but our goal is to continue to be the best we can be at creating awareness, educating, and preventing discrimination and abuse in any form, and to continue to be equally prepared when it does happen and to deal with it promptly, sensitively, fairly and effectively,” Cheek said.

Although the lawsuit focused largely on the actions or inactions by athletics department officials, especially the football program, the settlement included few provisions directly related to UT sports.

The settlement acknowledges that UT has agreed to stop giving out a list of Knoxville attorneys to athletes accused of misconduct. The university now refers student­athletes seeking attorneys to the local bar association.

Cheek noted that the university has steadily improved its efforts within the athletics department about sexual assaults.

“We have a very intense ongoing program with athletics and each year it becomes more structured, more organized and more deliberate,” Cheek said.

The special independent commission will have a broad mandate to evaluate state universities’ responses to sexual assault and to issue a report recommending improvements. The commission will examine the Administrative Procedures Act — one campus disciplinary process students may choose. The process was singled out in the lawsuit for being one­sided and favoring accused athletes.

DiPietro said he expects to appoint three or four members within the next 60 days. “There’s nothing they can’t look at in my book,” he said.

The settlement, which was not released in full Tuesday pending its filing with the federal court, also acknowledges that UT allocated $700,000 this year for six new positions in its Title IX office that investigates allegations of sexual assault.

The UT athletics department settled an unrelated lawsuit alleging gender discrimination for $1 million in January. Once attorney fees were factored in, that settlement figure increased to $1.2 million.

In 2014, UT also settled a gender discrimination suit filed by one of its top athletics officials for $320,000.

That brings the total lawsuit settlements involving the athletics program under the leadership of Hart to $3.6 million.

If you are thinking of bringing a Title IX lawsuit, or simply want to know more about our firm’s services in this area of the law, please click here.

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