KNOXVILLE (WATE) – The University of Tennessee has agreed to settle a federal Title IX lawsuit alleging a “hostile sexual environment” at the school, specifically within the athletics department, for $2.48 million.
The athletics department would cover half of the settlement with the other half by the Knoxville campus. The university says all of the funds would come from income generating activities within the university. No taxpayer dollars, student tuition or fees or donor funds would be used. It still needs to be approved by a judge.
The university says it has been improving its programs to ensure security and safety and has a number of enhancements in the works unrelated to the settlement. Six additional positions to support those efforts are in the process of being filled.
The settlement agreement also includes other enhancements to UT’s Title IX program including the appointment of a special independent commission to review the UT system’s sexual assault prevention programs.
“My clients and I are dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice and signed the settlement agreement. 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,” said attorney David Randolph Smith, who represents the plaintiffs.
“We recommended and applaud this outcome. Now, the university can continue its aggressive efforts to deal with Title IX issues, and the plaintiffs can go about their lives without the public agony of protracted litigation and trial,” said UT attorneys Aubrey Harwell and Bill Ramsey.
The lawsuit alleges that eight “Jane Does,” while students at UT in Knoxville, were victims of sexual assault, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and harassment by football and basketball players and “suffered retaliation by the perpetrators and other students for reporting these events and assisting with investigations.”
The eight brought claims against UT under Title IX, saying UT has an alleged official policy of deliberate indifference to sexual assault, causing the alleged victims to endure additional consequences.
The university says the settlement is not an admission of guilt. The university said it decided to settle because the case might take another two to three years, which could amount to more than $5.5 million, not including emotional or reputational costs.
“We are proud of the work done in recent years by our Title IX, student conduct and student welfare professionals at UTK and across our System to create awareness of, respond to and provide support around issues related to sexual assault and sexual misconduct,” said UT president Joe DiPietro.
A trial date had been set for May 2018 with several filing deadlines in the preceding months. Lincoln Memorial University law professor Akram Faizer told WATE 6 On Your Side in May the fact that the judge was letting the case move forward might encourage UT to settle.
“By holding in their favor, she now allows this case to proceed in federal court and go towards trial and allow for most importantly discovery to happen, depositions, all kinds of things which UT could find damaging and encourage UT to potentially settle the case,” he said.
In February, all 16 varsity athletic coaches held an unprecedented news conference to respond to the lawsuit with stories about the resources available to its female student athletes. The suit garnered national attention for a mention of an alleged incident involving Peyton Manning during his time at the university. UT sought several times to have all or some of the lawsuit to be dismissed.
The university also sought to have the case moved to Knoxville from Nashville, but those motions were dismissed. The plaintiffs insisted Nashville was the proper venue.
The settlement was approved by the Vice Chair of the Board, the UT System President, UT Knoxville Chancellor, the UT Knoxville Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics, UT General Counsel, Interim Chief Financial Officer; the State Attorney General, the State Comptroller, and the Governor. The court and leaders of both Houses of the Tennessee Legislature were informed of the settlement.