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Jameis Winston's accuser sues Florida State University

Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston leaves his student conduct code hearing last month in Tallahassee.
Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston leaves his student conduct code hearing last month in Tallahassee.
Published Jan. 8, 2015

On the day star quarterback Jameis Winston announced he was leaving Florida State University for the NFL, the complex saga surrounding 2-year-old rape allegations against him took a step that could take months to unravel.

Winston's accuser filed a federal Title IX lawsuit against FSU on Wednesday, alleging that the school deliberately hid sexual assault claims against him "to protect the football program."

The 35-page lawsuit focuses on the school, not Winston, who has never been charged with a crime. The suit claims Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher and a senior athletic official knew about the accusations involving the eventual 2013 Heisman Trophy winner but violated federal law and school policies by not telling other FSU administrators. It also alleges that another woman told a victim's advocate that she was raped by Winston and accuses the school of violating Title IX through its "clearly unreasonable response" and "hostile educational environment."

"The university has responsibilities to all their students, not just to their football players," David B. King, one of the woman's attorneys, said on Wednesday.

The plaintiff is identified only by the pseudonym Jane Doe, and the suit doesn't specify an exact monetary figure sought, beyond tuition, emotional pain and suffering and legal fees.

FSU president John Thrasher said in a statement that the university would address the "meritless allegations" in court. Thrasher said the woman or her attorneys refused nine different requests to give a statement to start a Title IX investigation. He also said the school used its confidential Victim Advocate Program to provide emotional support and academic accommodations.

"FSU did not ignore the complainant or its obligations under Title IX. FSU's handling of this matter was driven by the plaintiff's deliberate and informed choice on how to proceed, not by Athletics," Thrasher said.

The university hired a Jacksonville-based law firm, McGuireWoods LLP, in February in anticipation of the suit. A school spokesperson said last month that no bills or invoices exist regarding FSU's legal bills with the firm.

Wednesday's development is the latest step in an extensive case dating back to December 2012. That's when a then-FSU student from Pasco County told campus police that she was raped. FSU police referred the incident to the Tallahassee Police Department because it took place off campus. The woman identified Winston as a suspect a month later.

Tallahassee police called Winston on Jan. 22, 2013, to request an interview. On the same day, according to the suit, Tallahassee police called Monk Bonasorte, the senior associate athletic director who oversees FSU's football program. Bonasorte then spoke with Fisher about the case.

The suit alleges that neither the athletic nor police department told the appropriate administrators to start a university investigation — a requirement under the federal gender-equity law Title IX.

"This deliberate concealment of student-on-student sexual harassment to protect the football program deprived Plaintiff of her rights under Title IX and caused substantial damages. . . ." the suit said.

FSU has acknowledged that its athletic department did not file a report with the school's Title IX administrators or its office of student rights and responsibilities.

In an open letter to the FSU community in October, the school said it didn't do so because Winston and two teammates/witnesses said the encounter was consensual and because Tallahassee police didn't file charges.

Wednesday's suit also alleges that the victim's advocate told the plaintiff in October 2013 that another woman reported she was sexually assaulted by Winston. The New York Times first reported the existence of the second woman last spring. No police report was filed, and a prosecutor told the New York Times that she did not think a crime occurred.

"The advocate asked if Plaintiff would cooperate with and participate in disciplinary proceedings against Winston," the suit said. "Plaintiff stated that she absolutely would do so."

Less than a month later, FSU's then-dean of students, Jeanine Ward-Roof, wrote an email to the school's police chief, which was obtained the Tampa Bay Times under open-records laws. Ward-Roof wrote that victims are normally not told about other cases "unless we were moving forward with a conduct case. In this case, that is not the fact."

FSU held a two-day conduct hearing last month, and Winston was not charged with violating the school's code of conduct.

Winston's legal adviser, David Cornwell, declined a request for comment Wednesday.

In all, the lawsuit alleges that FSU failed to provide an environment free from sexual discrimination, including violence and harassment as required under Title IX. The suit said FSU should have done more to protect the woman, who received death threats and was forced to leave the school after the accusations became public in November 2013.

"Plaintiff's inability to attend classes at FSU in favor of men's athletics is exactly the result that Title IX was designed to prevent," the suit said.

The lawsuit was filed shortly after Winston's father announced the star quarterback would forgo his final two years of eligibility by declaring for the NFL draft.

"That was really unrelated," King said.

Where the case goes from here is unclear. The woman's attorneys have previously said they are considering lawsuits against Tallahassee police and Winston, but no suits have been filed.

Plaintiffs must typically show that schools showed "deliberate indifference" to win Title IX cases, said Peter Lake, the director of Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy.

"This is a high hurdle," Lake said.

A legal resolution could be 18 to 24 months away. But the case is even more complex because the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is also looking into FSU's handling of the accusations. Dozens of other universities are under similar investigations.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Orlando because four of the school's six campuses are in that district and because the woman feels she "cannot receive a fair and impartial trial" in any other venue.

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