Univ. of Tennessee settles lawsuit regarding sexual assault cases

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The University of Tennessee has reached a financial settlement with a group of women who sued the school in federal court for the way it handled their allegations of sexual assaults by student-athletes.

According to documents obtained by ESPN, the university will pay the eight women $2.48 million.

According to court records, the sides had a teleconference with U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger on Tuesday. The federal trial was scheduled to begin in May 2018 at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville.

On Feb. 9, a group of six unidentified women filed a federal civil lawsuit against Tennessee, alleging that the school violated Title IX regulations and created a "hostile sexual environment" through a policy of indifference toward assaults by student-athletes.

According to a UT release, the settlement agreement specifically provides that the university is not admitting guilt, negligence or unlawful acts. UT officials said they have already spent $220,000 litigating the case and estimated that it would cost another $5.5 million if the case ended in trial. David Randolph Smith, the Nashville attorney who represents the eight women, said his clients are dismissing their lawsuit against UT.

"My clients and I are dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice and signed the settlement agreement," Smith said in a statement. "We are 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. My clients and I are also convinced that the University's leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct.

"If we all can look ahead and imagine our state's flagship university as a leader in awareness, education, support and aggressive response to these issues, this lawsuit and the resulting outcome would have contributed in a small way to the safety, well-being and hopeful futures of many young people who from time to time call the University of Tennessee home."

"No university will be able to prevent every incident of students, faculty or staff making bad judgments," Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek said. "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. We've come a long way in recent years, and we are working every day to be even better. Our first priority is the safety and well-being of every member of our University community."

In June, Trauger issued a gag order in the case, which prohibits the attorneys from talking about the high-profile case.

Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and athletic director Dave Hart didn't respond to telephone messages from ESPN.

The original complaint, filed by six women who were identified as Jane Does 1-6, claimed that Tennessee's policies made students more vulnerable to sexual assault and said the school had a "clearly unreasonable response" after incidents that caused the women making complaints to endure additional harassment. The suit also stated that the university interfered with the disciplinary process to favor male athletes.

According to the lawsuit:

Jane Doe I alleged that former Tennessee basketball player Yemi Makanjuola sexually assaulted her in his dorm room on Feb. 15, 2013. She had a rape exam the next day, and he was subsequently found in violation of UT's General Standard of Conduct for assaulting the woman. The suit alleges that his attorney filed a request for an administrative hearing to contest the charges, which allowed Makanjuola to remain on Tennessee's basketball team for the remainder of the season and then transfer to another school without being disciplined.

Jane Doe II alleged that an unidentified UT football player sexually assaulted her at Vol Hall on Sept. 6, 2014. The school's Office of Student Judicial Affairs found him responsible for assaulting the woman, but UT later withdrew its findings and found no violation of student conduct for sexual assault.

Jane Doe III alleged that an unidentified Tennessee student and two unidentified Tennessee State students sexually assaulted her on Oct. 12, 2014. According to the lawsuit, the Tennessee student, who was not an athlete, was found responsible for assaulting her in a disciplinary hearing. The woman claimed that she was unable to consent to having sex with the men because she was incapacitated after being provided alcohol by members of the UT football team at a party at Vol Hall earlier that night.

Jane Doe IV alleged that Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams sexually assaulted her at an off-campus apartment on Nov. 6, 2014. The suit claims that a university investigation concluded that Johnson and Williams had committed sexual assault. The former players were indicted on aggravated rape charges in February 2015, and their criminal trials were postponed this summer.

Jane Doe V alleged that as a Title IX investigation witness, she was subjected to retaliation and collective "victim blaming" that occurred in the wake of the assault of Jane Doe IV, her teammate and roommate. Jane Doe V claimed that she received multiple text messages from UT football players, including one of the alleged rapists, intended to discourage both her and Jane Doe IV from reporting the assault to authorities.

Jane Doe VI alleged that a Tennessee football player sexually assaulted her at her apartment on Feb. 5, 2015. At the time of the assault, the man was dating her roommate. After Jane Doe VI reported the assault, the lawsuit alleged, his roommates, also UT football players, repeatedly called her to discourage her from reporting the assault. The lawsuit alleges that a UT investigation improperly concluded that the woman didn't resist the former player's advances.

In an amended complaint filed in mid-February, two women were added to the lawsuit. One woman claimed that she was sexually assaulted by Volunteers wide receiver Von Pearson in April 2015. Pearson was not charged criminally but was found to have violated the school's code of conduct, according to the lawsuit. The woman claimed that the university mishandled her claims against Pearson, who was reinstated to the school and allowed to rejoin the team.

The other woman accused defensive lineman Alexis Johnson of assaulting her on Valentine's Day. He was arrested in February after allegedly assaulting the woman in his apartment, and he was subsequently suspended from the team. Johnson, a transfer from Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College, agreed to a plea deal in April, which reduced a felony aggravated assault charge to a misdemeanor and dropped a false imprisonment charge altogether, as long as Johnson stays out of trouble for six months.

The amended lawsuit also alleged that former Tennessee player Drae Bowles was assaulted by teammates for helping Jane Doe IV, who claimed two UT players sexually assaulted her. Bowles claimed that Jones said he "betrayed the team" and later called him back to apologize for calling him a "traitor." Jones has denied the accusation.

In a sworn statement included with the amended lawsuit, Bowles said he was punched in the mouth and bloodied by star linebacker Curt Maggitt as retribution for helping the woman. He also said he was confronted by teammates Geraldo Orta and Marlin Lane.