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UA, former student settle lawsuit over response to 2014 rape report

by Jaime Adame | February 18, 2020 at 7:11 a.m.
University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville student and the university have agreed to settle a lawsuit scheduled for trial next month that alleged "deliberate indifference" to her 2014 report of rape.

Both sides on Monday filed a joint stipulation in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville that the case be dismissed with prejudice, meaning that it cannot be filed again.

The former UA student will receive $100,000 in the settlement, with another $15,000 going to her attorneys to cover legal expenses.

UA released the settlement agreement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"The plaintiff in this case and the University of Arkansas agree that it would be mutually beneficial to avoid continued litigation. The process of litigating the facts of this case has continued for several years and had the potential of continuing for years into the future," the student and UA said in a joint statement released as part of the settlement.

The joint statement continues: "With those factors in mind and in consideration of what is in the best interests of the plaintiff and the University, we have agreed to put our disagreements aside and settle the litigation."

The settlement ends a lawsuit that U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III in a January ruling called "the oldest case" on his docket. A jury trial had been set for March 10.

The former student filed the lawsuit in August 2016.

In October 2014, she was a 19-year-old UA student who told police and school officials she had been raped in her dorm room. Her lawsuit alleged that UA delayed the coordination of classroom accommodations after she reported the assault and that the university improperly conducted its campus disciplinary process.

She gave a statement as part of Monday's settlement: "I hope that the University's commitment to raise awareness and fight against sexual assault on campus continues to be a priority. It is crucial that colleges proactively prevent and respond to claims of sexual harassment and sexual violence, as well as provide resources and accommodations to survivors of campus sexual assault."

Her statement was included in the joint statement, which went on to say: "The University will continue to focus its efforts on fostering the safety and well-being of its students and the entire campus community."

In similar lawsuits where a college or university student reported sexual assault and reached a settlement, the average settlement amount was nearly $350,000, according to an analysis of claims from 2011 to 2015 by United Educators, a provider of insurance and risk management to schools and universities.

In part, the former student's lawsuit alleged that UA reacted with "deliberate indifference" in how it managed the appeal of a student expelled after a disciplinary panel found him responsible for sexual misconduct.

On his appeal, the student had his expulsion date postponed until after he would receive his diploma. The initial appeal decision letter imposed restrictions on the sanctioned student, ordering him to stay off campus for a minimum period of three years or until the student found by the campus panel to have been assaulted was no longer enrolled.

But this initial appeal decision letter was issued by mistake, UA officials later said, and the university made the expulsion effective back to the date that the disciplinary panel was convened.

In November, Holmes had tossed out portions of the lawsuit described as "pre-assault" allegations that UA should have done more to keep the accused assailant from campus given a history that included an arrest and a previous suspension.

In allowing the lawsuit to move forward, Holmes cited the "misleading nature" of communication as part of the appeals process and an "arguable reluctance to provide accommodations," issuing a ruling after the university had requested summary judgment in its favor.

Holmes wrote that the legal issue was whether UA's response to the student's reported rape "left her with an objectively reasonable belief that she remained vulnerable to harassment so severe, pervasive, and offensive that it deprived her of equal access to the educational benefits and opportunities provided by the University."

The student who filed the lawsuit withdrew from three courses in the spring 2015 semester but otherwise completed the semester at UA. However, she did not return as a student after spring 2015. She has been represented by attorney George Rozzell with the Rogers-based law firm of Keith, Miller, Butler, Schneider & Pawlik, PLLC.

Multiple delays in the case included a failed argument by university attorneys -- joined by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and other Republican attorneys general from six states -- that sovereign immunity should shield state universities from damages for violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination at schools receiving federal funding.

Schools are expected to investigate students' complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Campus proceedings are separate from any police investigations. UA uses a preponderance of evidence standard, meaning that disciplinary findings are based on whether misconduct is more likely than not to have occurred.

In this case, a prosecutor reviewed the sexual assault report but declined to file criminal charges. The person accused of sexual assault told authorities the sexual encounter was consensual.

In October 2019, the former student who sued UA filed a civil lawsuit against the expelled student in Washington County Circuit Court seeking unspecified damages.

The lawsuit cites Arkansas Code Annotated 16-118-107, which allows victims of felony crime to sue for damages, and alleges the expelled student engaged in sexual contact by forcible compulsion. This lawsuit remains pending. The most recent filing, dated Friday, seeks an extension of time to serve notice of the lawsuit to the defendant, who is described as believed to be residing in the Bahamas, a foreign country.

Metro on 02/18/2020

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