LSU conspired to cover up reports of sexual misconduct and dating violence, new lawsuit claims
Seven women filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Louisiana State University, its leadership, athletic fundraising arm and several top administrators on Monday, alleging they conspired to cover up the women’s reports of sexual misconduct and dating violence, discriminated against female students and deprived them of their rights.
The women include three former LSU tennis players, two former football recruiting office student workers, a former student and a current student.
Together, they accused the school of prioritizing its reputation and football program above their safety and welfare and for creating a “culture of silence” where student victims were discouraged from and retaliated against for reporting Title IX offenses, according to a copy of the 124-page lawsuit obtained by USA TODAY. They are seeking damages in excess of $5 million, plus court costs.
All seven previously shared their accounts of assault, harassment and institutional betrayal with USA TODAY, whose reporting on the cases led LSU to hire an outside law firm, Husch Blackwell, to review its handling of them.
Husch Blackwell confirmed USA TODAY’s reporting and found a “serious institutional failure” in LSU’s response to physical and gendered violence complaints.
The class-action status of the women’s lawsuit means others who were harmed by LSU’s failures to provide resources for student victims of sex discrimination from 2013 to the present can potentially join as plaintiffs. Attorneys for the women said they believe the affected class extends to thousands of current and former students.
“We have filed an action against LSU on behalf of the young women that have bravely come forward, the young people that are still afraid, and every young person who had the dream of going to LSU,” said Karen Truszkowski, an attorney for the women, in a statement to USA TODAY. “Until the priorities shift back to the mission of this university, the flagship school of Louisiana, to educate and support young people in their quest to better themselves, we will not stop the quest for change.”
Ongoing legal trouble at LSU
The lawsuit is the latest fallout from USA TODAY’s reporting on LSU’s failure to protect women from gendered violence and harassment.
The U.S. Department of Education is conducting two investigations into the university for violating Title IX and the Clery Act – two federal laws meant to protect students from interpersonal violence and sex discrimination. LSU also disciplined two athletic administrators in connection with the scandal, and two former top LSU employees lost their jobs at other universities – the University of Kansas parted ways with football coach Les Miles, and Oregon State University accepted the resignation of President F. King Alexander.
This is the second lawsuit against LSU and its leaders filed this month. Sharon Lewis, LSU’s longtime football recruiting director, filed claims alleging retaliation from her supervisors and a similar organized criminal enterprise to cover up Title IX complaints.
Reached Sunday, LSU Vice President for Communications Jim Sabourin said the school was not aware of the latest lawsuit and could not comment on it.
“We are focused on taking actions to ensure that we create a campus that is safe, just and worthy of the trust that has been placed in us,” Sabourin in a statement.
Defendants in the lawsuit include one former and six current athletic department officials, as well as the Tiger Athletic Foundation, a nonprofit that funnels millions of dollars in donations to the LSU athletic department.
The lawsuit alleges the foundation and the officials engaged in a state and federal RICO Act conspiracy to keep complaints against athletes and coaches in house and fraudulently certify their compliance with the laws and NCAA rules in order to protect athletes and keep donations and revenue flowing. Lewis’ suit also included a RICO Act claim.
The athletics officials named in the suit are: former athletic director Joe Alleva, executive deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry, senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar, women’s tennis coaches Julia and Mike Sell, Lewis and assistant director of recruiting operations Keava Soil-Cormier.
Also named as defendants are the LSU Board of Supervisors, Alexander; former human resources director A.G. Monaco, former Title IX coordinators Jennie Stewart and Jim Marchand, and student accountability director Jonathan Sanders and associate director Tracy Blanchard.
Lawsuit: LSU officials indifferent to assault claims
Two of the women in the most recent lawsuit said LSU officials were deliberately indifferent to their reports of sexual assault and misconduct by former star running back Derrius Guice. Former tennis player Abby Owens said Guice raped her. Former student recruiting worker Samantha Brennan said Guice took a partially nude photo of her without her consent and shared it with others on the football team.
Owens detailed her account to USA TODAY in August and Brennan did so in November. Although their incidents were disclosed to several officials, including Lewis, Segar and Julia Sell, no one from LSU’s Title IX Office ever reached out to them to conduct an investigation or offer support, resources or accommodations, they said.
Former student Calise Richardson, who shared her account with USA TODAY in December, said she and other students in the football recruiting office were encouraged to do anything to lure top football recruits on visits to LSU, including having sex with them. Players, coaches and other men affiliated with LSU solicited her for sex on multiple occasions, she said.
One recruit raped Richardson in 2015 during an official visit, the lawsuit said. Guice attempted to rape her in fall 2016, she said, and then spread rumors around the football program that she would have sex with anyone, which led to additional sexual advances from others.
Guice has previously denied the allegations through his attorney, Peter Greenspun.
Richardson also said she was physically and emotionally abused by then-LSU football player Drake Davis from 2016 through 2018. Lewis and Soil-Cormier took no action in response to Richardson’s complaint in 2016, laughing at her and mocking her instead, she said, while telling her she could go to the police if she wanted to ruin Davis’ life.
Richardson said the lawsuit is the “last thing” she wanted to happen.
“I spoke out in 2018 and 2020 and for the same reason, I want accountability, justice and change,” she told USA TODAY. “LSU isn’t listening to what the public wants, so we have to find a new way to make them listen. Hopefully, they’ll take us seriously now and start caring about the safety and well-being of their students.”
For more than a year beginning in spring 2017, Davis repeatedly physically assaulted and strangled former tennis player Jade Lewis, another plaintiff in the suit. Numerous LSU officials, including the Sells, were aware of the assaults, the lawsuit said. Davis even admitted to punching Jade Lewis in an April 2018 text message to Ausberry, who did not report the information to anyone.
LSU officials dragged their feet in charging Davis, who continued to practice with the football team while the abuse was escalating into death threats. Meanwhile, LSU officials wasted little time charging Jade Lewis for having a candle in her campus apartment – a candle that was found during the investigation into Davis’ dating violence.
Davis pleaded guilty in March 2019 to criminal charges stemming from multiple assaults of Lewis. He was not expelled from LSU until July 2019.
Kennan Johnson, another former LSU tennis player, said Julia Sell emotionally and mentally abused her and discriminated against her on the basis of her sexual orientation. Johnson said Sell told her to keep her “lifestyle” out of the locker room.
Julia Sell held Johnson’s lifelong dream of playing tennis for LSU over her head, repeatedly telling her she wasn’t good enough to be on the team and forcing her to lose a certain amount of weight each week in order to stay, she said. Julia Sell created a toxic environment on the team, pitted players against each other and insulted them behind their backs, the lawsuit said.
Johnson also said she reported Davis’ physical abuse of Jade Lewis to Julia Sell. Additionally, Johnson said Julia Sell instructed her and other teammates to stay away from Jade Lewis after Davis was arrested in August 2018.
Johnson told USA TODAY that LSU has become a place she dreads going to, and that she no longer feels part of the Tiger family.
“LSU has done a disservice to not only its employees but also to its students, and it’s not just about LSU. It’s about cultural change that needs to happen within institutions,” Johnson said of the lawsuit. “Overall there is work to be done and people who need to be fired and things that need to be reevaluated, and if this is the step that I have to take to make a change, then so be it.”
The other two plaintiffs had no affiliation with athletics.
Elisabeth Andries detailed her assault by a fraternity member to USA TODAY in November. Although the fraternity member was ultimately found responsible for sexually assaulting her and a second student on the same night, the Title IX process dragged on nearly six months, during which LSU rejected the women’s requests for protections, rarely gave them updates and failed to interview key witnesses.
In the meantime, LSU moved Andries out of the classes she shared with him, instead of the other way around, which goes against Title IX’s best practices. And it issued a mutual no-contact order to her and the fraternity member, which the lawsuit said amounts to retaliatory disciplinary action against a complainant, because she could have been subject to sanctions had she violated it.
Despite the frat member being found responsible twice, Sanders issued him a deferred suspension – a punishment that resulted in no actual suspension and allowed him to continue his coursework uninterrupted.
Only in October 2019, after the second woman appealed the deferred suspension, was the fraternity member suspended for two semesters and banned from campus.
The seventh plaintiff is listed as “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit to protect her confidentiality, but she spoke to USA TODAY about her case. It is USA TODAY’s policy not to identify individuals who allege sexual crimes and domestic violence without their permission.
As a freshman in spring 2019, the woman reported a student in her residence hall for sexual harassment and stalking. She said he sent her sexually harassing messages from several phone numbers, groped her at a Chipotle and stole items from her dorm, offering to give them back only if she submitted to his sexual advances.
Four LSU officials interviewed the woman, only to determine the male student’s conduct did not fall under Title IX. LSU then excluded her from receiving any information about the process, did not inform her of the outcome of the investigation and provided her incomplete case records when she requested them earlier this year.
While the male student ostensibly received no discipline, LSU expelled her in fall 2019, when her grades plummeted in the aftermath of the harassment, she said. The school granted her appeal to re-enroll, but she dropped out of school on her own a few months later, she said, after she continued to see the student on campus.
A daughter of LSU alumni, she grew up loving the Tigers, she told USA TODAY. When it came time to apply for colleges, it was the only school where she applied. It still holds the same place in her heart, she said, but she wants it to change.
“They couldn’t even take care of my case, which seemed pretty straightforward. And they still aren’t doing the right thing,” she said. “I don’t really want to go anywhere else. I guess I want to go back, but I want to get it all sorted out first.”