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LSU Settles Lawsuit Alleging Mishandling of Sexual Assault Cases—Results of Independent Legal Investigation Prove Pivotal

Although the details are not yet public, Louisiana State University recently settled a lawsuit filed by 10 women who alleged that the University failed to properly handle their sexual misconduct cases, reportedly agreeing to pay $1.9 million to settle the claims against the school. The lawsuit included allegations that to keep complaints against athletes from becoming public, the University developed a scheme for reporting sexual misconduct that was separate from the school’s Title IX office and “purposefully deficient.”

One factor that could have persuaded the University that they had little chance of succeeding in the case was a report issued by a law firm they hired to conduct an independent investigation into the handling of sexual misconduct complaints. The report condemned a flawed institutional system for reporting and managing complaints.

Journalistic Investigation Prompts Protests on Campus

The problem of LSU officials sweeping allegations of sexual misconduct under the rug became national news in 2020 when USA Today reported that the school’s athletic department and administration “repeatedly have ignored complaints against abusers, denied victims’ requests for protections and subjected them to further harm by known perpetrators.” Many allegations involved star football players such as running back Derrius Guice and wide receiver Drake Davis. However, some involved non-athletes who were given only “deferred suspensions” that allowed them to stay on campus even though they’d been found responsible for sexual assault or harassment. A deferred suspension served as a probationary period during which students were expected to “stay out of trouble.”

After the investigation became public, students gathered to protest, and that’s when the University hired an outside law firm to carry out an investigation into the allegations of mishandling.

Law Firm Reports “Serious Institutional Failure”

When LSU brought in an outside firm to conduct an investigation, officials may have hoped the independent nature of the reporting might provide some measure of exoneration for the University, perhaps showing a few breaches but not as many as alleged, along with a willingness to ferret out the problems and right the wrongs for the future. However, the results were so scathing that they only added more fuel to the fire of public outrage.

In a 148-page report released in 2021, the law firm described a system of reporting sexual misconduct complaints that was “built to fail.” According to findings, the policies about how, when, and where to report complaints were not made clear, and training on handling allegations of misconduct was minimal and appeared to be added as an “afterthought.” In particular, the investigation revealed that the University’s Title IX Office was understaffed and not given adequate independence to function properly. The Title IX Coordinator was expected to fulfill other commitments that made it impossible to oversee Title IX obligations adequately.

The interim president of LSU at the time, Thomas Galligan, is supposed to have referred to the report as “brutally honest.” He observed that the school had to take a close, painful look at the campus culture. Prior to the 2021 report, LSU had five prior Title IX policy reviews, all of which pointed out serious problems with policies and practices.

Lawsuit Filed Over Misconduct Spanning Numerous Years

A month after the release of the law firm’s report, 10 former LSU students filed a lawsuit, Owens, v. Louisiana State University, alleging violations of Title IX, including deliberate indifference to sex discrimination, hostile environment, heightened risk, retaliation by withholding protection, First Amendment retaliation, denial of Equal Protection, and denial of substantive and procedural due process.

Four of the ten former students’ claims involved sexual misconduct alleged to have been committed by Guice. One involved a claim of intimate partner violence against Drake, one centered on misconduct allegedly committed by a professor and another involved abuse by a coach. Many of the instances had occurred years before. The gist of the lawsuit was that by failing to establish proper procedures for handling complaints of sexual misconduct and not conducting investigations properly, the University violated the Title IX rights of the former students. The former students said they were unaware of the institutional failures on the part of the school until the report from the law firm brought the problems to light. They alleged that before the release of the report, they had no way of knowing that the school had concealed instances of sexual misconduct that should have been sent to the LSU Title IX Office. The case continued for nearly three years before the school agreed to settle the claim.  

In one of the most recent developments in the case, Judge Wendy B. Vitter denied the University’s motion for summary judgment against one of the student’s claims in December, observing that the student who alleged sexual assault and harassment “provided sufficient evidence to raise a genuine dispute regarding whether LSU’s policy of deliberate indifference caused her to suffer that sexual harassment.”

Title IX Rights Can Be Violated in Numerous Ways

This case illustrates some of the ways students, faculty, and staff can suffer when their Title IX rights are violated. The students and employees who committed acts of sex discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault violated the rights of the victims, but members of the administration and the institution itself also violated their rights by failing to follow proper procedures, conduct investigations, and follow through with appropriate consequences. The damage to the victims’ emotional and physical health and to their educational and professional careers may be impossible to remedy.

The settlement provided in this case offers a measure of justice. In addition, the attention resulting from the case followed the administrators responsible, causing them to lose positions at other institutions, and that may also have provided some retribution. Even years later, efforts to enforce Title IX rights can help restore balance and bring closure to those who have suffered from violations.

The team at Duffy Law understands how to effectively protect the Title IX rights of claimants and respondents. If you would like to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss an issue, just contact us today. 

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.