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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit filed by U of M football players alleging racial, gender discrimination in sexual assault investigation

Federal judge dismisses lawsuit filed by U of M football players alleging racial, gender discrimination in sexual assault investigation Photo: KSTP

Updated: June 25, 2019 11:55 AM

A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by nine University of Minnesota football players involved in an investigation into sexual assault allegations in 2016.

The players, all African American, alleged "racial and gender discrimination; intentional, willful, and malicious misconduct; and deliberate indifference" on the part of the school, outgoing President Eric Kaler and Tina Marisam, director of the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

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However, judge Donovan W. Frank ruled there were insufficient legal grounds to support those claims.

RELATED: 9 football players suing U of M for racial, gender discrimination in sexual assault investigation

A female student accused several Gopher football players of sexual assault in September 2016. After a police investigation, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to press criminal charges. However, 10 players were initially suspended, leading to a highly-publicized bowl game boycott and eventually a coaching change.

In the end, four players were expelled, one had his expulsion reduced to a one-year suspension and the rest were cleared of wrongdoing.

KSTP Exclusive: 80-page report outlines U of M investigation into Gophers football players

The lawsuit took aim at the EOAA investigation into the allegations, alleging that unlike the investigation by law enforcement, "the EOAA's investigation focused on finding the accused men guilty of sexual misconduct in order to validate the EOAA's previously-expressed, biased belief that male football players had a propensity for sexually assaulting and harassing women."

It also alleged that "Because of Plaintiffs' gender, and to support an archaic assumption that male football players had a propensity for sexual misconduct against women, the EOAA investigators deprived Plaintiffs of the fair and impartial investigation to which they were entitled under the U.S. Constitution and University policies and procedures."

However, Frank wrote that the court "finds Plaintiffs' allegations with respect to gender bias insufficient to support the above theories of a Title IX violation. Any allegation that unbalanced questioning favored Jane Doe as the complainant over Plaintiffs as the respondents does not suggest Plaintiffs were treated unfavorably because of their gender."

The lawsuit also claimed that "The University and administrators at its highest levels, including (Kaler), were complicit in victimizing Plaintiffs by utilizing EOAA's overzealous and discriminatory investigation in order to deflect criticism the University was facing for having previously turned a blind eye to charges of sexual harassment by white men in the University Athletics Department."

But Frank wrote the court found "that this evidence fails as a matter of law."

KSTP's complete coverage of the investigation

The lawsuit went on to allege Kaler tried to convict the players in terms of public opinion, and that they were used as scapegoats for the school to atone "for past transgressions" allegedly involving athletic department administrators and coaches who were white.

It claimed the university took a different approach when handling those allegations.

However, Frank wrote that "Kaler made the challenged statements in his official role as President of the University of Minnesota. He spoke on the University's behalf, addressing a controversy involving allegations of a group sexual assault of a University student by several student-athletes while others watched, as well as the University's response to the allegations.

"Kaler's statements came after a public outcry and the threatened boycott of an upcoming football bowl game. Based on these facts, the Court holds that Kaler was commenting as a senior university official about a matter of significant public concern. Accordingly, absolute privilege bars Plaintiffs' defamation claim against Kaler."

The school issued a short statement on the ruling Tuesday morning.

"The University of Minnesota welcomes the decision by U.S. District Judge Frank, which confirms our belief that the claims brought in this case were without merit," it read.

Dave Madgett, the attorney representing the players, said the ruling was disappointing. But he called it just one part of the process, and said his clients will now have to decide if they will appeal.

"From the beginning, it was unlikely this case would ever be resolved just at the trial court level," he said in a voicemail. "These are big Constitutional issues and it's going to take some appeals work at some point to fully resolve it.

"We will huddle up with the team and figure out what we're going to do and how to respond."
 

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