FSU, Jameis Winston accuser reach $950,000 settlement

The deal, which ends a Title IX action against the university, is one of the costliest financial settlements of its kind.
Published January 25 2016
Updated January 26 2016

Jameis Winston's accuser and Florida State University agreed to end a monthslong legal battle Monday with one of the largest financial settlements of its kind.

In exchange for $950,000 and an ongoing commitment by FSU toward rape prevention and awareness, Zephyrhills' Erica Kinsman will drop her Title IX lawsuit against her former school.

By settling out of court, the university said it avoids "millions of dollars" more in legal fees. Those fees have already reached $1.7 million, FSU said, with about $1.3 million coming from funds generated by the Seminole Boosters' business operations.

"We have an obligation to our students, their parents and Florida taxpayers to deal with this case, as we do all litigation, in a financially responsible manner," FSU president John Thrasher said in a statement. "With all the economic demands we face, at some point it doesn't make sense to continue even though we are convinced we would have prevailed (in court)."

Monday's development closes one part of a complicated legal web dating to a December 2012 off-campus sexual encounter between Winston, then the Seminoles' star quarterback, and Kinsman.

After a State Attorney's Office investigation and a school disciplinary hearing ended without charges, Kinsman filed a federal suit against the university in January 2015.

She alleged that FSU deliberately hid sexual assault claims against Winston "to protect the football program" and Winston, who later won the Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to the 2013 national championship. Kinsman accused FSU of violating the federal gender-equity law Title IX with a "clearly unreasonable response" that forced her to leave school as the case became public in November 2013.

As the suit moved toward a discovery deadline in April and a September trial, legal fees and risks were set to rise. Depositions of Kinsman and FSU officials could have revealed potentially damaging information for either side, which helped fuel Monday's settlement.

But the story still isn't over.

Kinsman has filed a separate lawsuit against Winston, who just finished his rookie season as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winston has countersued Kinsman for defamation. A mediation session is scheduled for July with a U.S. District Court trial set for March 2017 in Orlando.

"FSU's choice to settle in no way compromises our commitment to fight for Jameis Winston and to clear the outrageous — and false — allegations against him," Mayanne Downs, one of Winston's attorneys, said in a statement.

Monday's settlement also ensures that FSU's reforms and a federal investigation continue.

While the school continues to deny any wrongdoing, FSU has revamped some of its policies. The university hired a full-time Title IX coordinator, formed a sexual assault prevention task force and website, added six positions related to on-campus safety and requires all incoming freshmen to take an online course about sex and relationships.

As part of the settlement, FSU will maintain those commitments for at least five years while publishing annual reports detailing its steps to stop and address on-campus sexual violence.

"I am happy that FSU has committed to continue making changes in order to ensure a safer environment for all students," Kinsman said in a statement released by her attorneys. "My hope is that the federal investigation of my complaint by the Office of Civil Rights will produce even more positive change, not just at FSU, but across the country."

That federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is almost 22 months old and could be nearing a resolution. Whatever the inquiry finds about FSU's handling of the case will help shape policies and procedures nationwide.

Similar investigations are open at 160 other schools, including the University of Miami and the University of South Florida.

"What mattered to her was that this not happen again, if there was any way possible," said Baine Kerr, one of Kinsman's attorneys. "OCR's incredibly comprehensive investigation is likely to go a long way toward ensuring that outcome."

Because the suit is a federal civil rights case, the state's sovereign immunity caps on settlements do not apply. The $950,000 will come from the state's risk management fund, which has already paid about $421,000 in legal fees, according to FSU. In the settlement, the school guessed that $250,000 of the payout would go to Kinsman, while her attorneys would earn the rest. Her attorneys strongly denied that figure, calling it not "anywhere close" to accurate.

Regardless of the specifics, the case will be scrutinized nationally as similar lawsuits pop up.

"I think people are watching everything with a careful eye," said Peter Lake, the director of Stetson University's Center for Higher Education Law and Policy. "What are the value of these cases? What are the terms people will settle under? A near-million-dollar settlement is going to gain a lot of attention."

Even if it doesn't completely end a legal mess that has been brewing for more than three years.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

     
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