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UT settles ‘hostile sexual environment’ lawsuit for $2.48 million

Entrance to the University of Tennessee campus at Cumberland and 11th Strteet Monday, May 18, 2015. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)
Entrance to the University of Tennessee campus at Cumberland and 11th Strteet Monday, May 18, 2015. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Mj Slaby And Dustin Dopirak, mj.slaby@knoxnews.com dustin.dopirak@knoxnews.com

Posted: July 05, 2016 9

The University of Tennessee is paying $2.48 million to settle the federal Title IX lawsuit alleging the university has a "hostile sexual environment."

Lawyers for both UT and the eight unidentified female plaintiffs agreed to the settlement, announced Tuesday, two days before a response from UT lawyers to the lawsuit was due in U.S. District Court in Nashville.

According to university leaders, settling the lawsuit is "the right thing to do" to prevent an emotional toll on those involved, protect the reputation of the university and avoid added legal costs that the university estimated could reach as much as $5.5 million.

"One side ultimately would have won in court several years from now,and we felt confident about our legal position," Raja Jubran, vice chair of the UT Board of Trustees said in a news release. "But I truly believe that both sides would have lost."

Jubran added that the loss would have been emotional stress as well as distraction from UT's successes and the exorbitant legal costs, which the university estimated to be as much as $5.5 million.

The $2.48 million settlement includes attorneys' fees for the plaintiffs' lawyer, Nashville-based David Randolph Smith, but not the fees for university lawyer Bill Ramsey.

Ramsey of the Nashville-based Neal & Harwell law firm, was hired by Gov. Bill Haslam in June 2015 to represent UT in "allegations involving Title IX."

As of June 8, the state has paid $220,862.82 to Neal & Harwell since Ramsey was hired.

The settlement funds will be paid half by the UT Knoxville campus and half by the UT athletics department, using "income generating activities within the university" and not state appropriations, student tuition or fees and donor funds.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger set the trial for May 2018.

The high-profile lawsuit was filed in February in U.S. District Court in Nashville and alleges UT has a "hostile sexual environment" and violates Title IX in the handling of sexual assault cases, especially accusations against student athletes.

The women include alleged victims in high-profile and widely reported sexual assault cases including cases against former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola and former football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, Von Pearson, Alexis Johnson and Riyahd Jones.

The court documents also include allegations against former UT and National Football League quarterback Peyton Manning.

In the settlement, the university is "not admitting guilt, negligence or unlawful acts," according to the release.

However, in their announcement of the settlement, lawyers for both UT and the plaintiffs agreed that UT is making progress in education about and response to sexual assault cases.

Smith, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in the news release that he and the plaintiffs are "satisfied" that UT "has made significant progress in the way they education and respond to sexual assault cases."

In the lawsuit, blame for a culture of sexual violence is placed at the top of the UT administration including Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, system President Joe DiPietro, Athletic Director Dave Hart and football coach Butch Jones.

However, Smith said in the release that he and his clients are "convinced that the university's leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct."

Throughout the lawsuit and before, UT leaders countered that argument and stressed their commitment to sexual assault prevention and education. In the settlement announcement, Cheek and DiPietro also stressed added initiatives.

The campus is adding six positions dedicated to sexual assault prevention and response, Cheek said and added that those positions are in the process of being filled.

"No university will be able to prevent every incident of students, faculty or staff making bad judgements," Cheek said in the release. "Like many institutions we are not perfect, but our goal is to continue to be the best we can be at creating awareness, education, 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."

And DiPietro said within 60 days, he plans to appoint an independent commission to review existing programs and efforts around sexual assault across the system and make recommendations. The president said he has yet to name the members of that commission.

DiPietro said that when these incidents happen, he wants to be confident that the university did everything in its power to deal with the situation and provide the necessary support

"I continue to say that one incident of sexual misconduct is one too many," DiPietro said in the release. "But, unfortunately, on a college campus, these incidents will happen."

The lawsuit was filed in February with six unidentified plaintiffs and then amended later that month to add two more plaintiffs.

Of the eight plaintiffs, seven making allegations against athletes. Of those seven, five said they were sexually assaulted, one said she was subject to "victim blaming" and one said she was assaulted due to refusing sex.

The documents allege a history of sexual misconduct in UT athletics including bringing up allegations about a 1996 incident involving alumnus Manning, pushing the incident back into the spotlight just after he won the Super Bowl.

And the documents also include allegations that former UT football player Curt Maggitt punched then-teammate Drae Bowles in the mouth for giving a ride to a woman who alleged fellow teammate A.J. Johnson raped her.

And then when Bowles told Jones, the documents allege that the coach said the player "betrayed the team" and then called back later to apologize.

The same month the lawsuit was filed, all 16 UT head coaches held a joint press conference to defend their culture and their programs. Two days later, Hart did the same, saying he trusted Jones 'implicitly."

In March, Cheek sent an email to staff and students and said the lawsuit was "uncomfortable for many of those involved" and denied allegations that the UT administration doesn't take sexual assault seriously.

In the same email, Cheek pointed to a number of changes since 2013 to improve response to sexual assault allegations including training for UT police and a revised sexual misconduct policy and more.

UT lawyers also filed various motions — most of which have been denied by Trauger — and other documents, but delayed filing an overall response.

The judge rejected motions to dismiss the case, to move the case from Nashville to Knoxville and to remove a paragraph about Manning, who as a student at the time, and then-trainer Jamie Whited, now Jamie Naughright.

According to the university, settlement negotiations have been discussed since the lawsuit was amended in late February, but the current negotiations began in April.

Earlier this year, UT agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a 2012 federal lawsuit filed on behalf of three former athletics staffers —Jenny Moshak, Heather Mason and Collin Schlosser — who alleged UT paid staff tied to women's sports less than counterparts working with male athletes. With attorneys' fees, the bill grew to just more than $1.2 million.

In October 2014, UT reached a $320,000 settlement with Debby Jennings, former media contact for Lady Vols athletics, who alleged the university and athletic director Dave Hart discriminated and retaliated against her.

UT is still facing two sexual violence complaints that were filed in May with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. And the criminal trials of Johnson and Williams are on hold.

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