A $100,000 settlement between Clemson University and a former student who was accused of sexually assaulting a classmate will be allowed to stand after a federal judge rejected the student’s request to overturn the agreement because of concerns regarding its confidentiality provisions.
In 2015, a female student accused “John Doe” of assaulting her. Doe denied the allegations, claiming that the physical contact was consensual. He was suspended until 2018 and ordered out of university housing. Doe then filed a lawsuit against the university, saying he was treated unfairly, and the parties settled the suit in 2018 after mediation.
Doe later learned that the $100,000 would be paid through South Carolina’s Insurance Reserve Fund, meaning that his name would be part of the public record. Doe hired new attorneys who sought to overturn the settlement to better protect Doe’s discipline records and identity. Clemson moved to enforce the settlement in federal court.
“Throughout the filings in this case, plaintiff contends that he was told ‘more is coming’ at the mediation,” and didn’t believe he was signing the final settlement, U.S. District Judge Donald Coggins wrote in an opinion upholding the settlement. But it was uncontested that Doe nevertheless signed the settlement, which didn’t include any of the terms he claimed he later expected to be addressed, including how the university would handle his disciplinary record and public records requests concerning the agreement.
“The parties unambiguously reached a settlement during the mediation,” Coggins wrote. “The plain terms of that settlement are set forth in the signed settlement agreement. The representations of John Doe, and his parents regarding more being promised during the settlement negotiations are simply unsupported by the plain and unambiguous language of the Settlement Agreement.”
Coggins acknowledged that the case was difficult for everyone involved.
“In every interaction with the court, defendants have shown a willingness to try to accommodate plaintiff’s needs in preserving his reputation … the court strongly encourages defendants to continue in their efforts to help plaintiff and his accuser move past this incident. Unfortunately, given the plain and unambiguous terms of the settlement agreement—which plaintiff signed—strong encouragement is all the court can provide.”
Eric Rosenberg, a lawyer in Ohio who was not involved in the case, said he has filed 20 lawsuits on behalf of students accused of sexual misconduct, of which 16 ended in settlements. He said the primary goal of most of his clients has been getting their disciplinary record cleared. He has seen settlements in cases ranging from five to seven figures, and said the higher amounts tend to come in cases where the record is not cleared.
“I’ve seen that trade-off happen in settlements I’ve been involved in,” Rosenberg said. “Money can’t fix a destroyed academic and professional career. If the process was more fair and transparent with things like cross-examination allowed [at school hearings] the propensity for lawsuits would significantly decrease. Both accused and accusing would leave with at least the belief that they had a fair hearing.”
Kimberly Lau of Warshaw Burstein in New York represented Doe. Andrew Carson of Wilson, Jones, Carter and Baxley in Greenville represented Clemson. Neither attorney could be reached for comment on the ruling.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw