Judge refuses to reinstate lawsuit against Colorado

Updated: March 23, 2006, 7:04 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- A federal judge rejected a request to revive the lawsuit at the heart of the University of Colorado recruiting scandal Thursday, saying two women who claimed they were sexually assaulted by athletes had not proven their claim against the school was valid.

Attorneys for the women immediately promised an appeal.

The women have argued that the school violated federal Title IX gender equity law by fostering an atmosphere that led to their alleged assaults at a 2001 off-campus party. Police investigated but no sexual assault charges were filed.

U.S. District Robert Blackburn tossed out the lawsuit a year ago, and said Thursday the women had not changed his mind after arguing there was newly discovered evidence showing Colorado coaches and trainers were aware of similar problems before the alleged assaults.

"There is much about the incidents evidenced in the record of this case that cries out for justice," the judge wrote. "There is no doubt that some of the harassment, abuse and assaults reflected in the record are shameful at best and criminal at worst.

"A cry for justice, however, does not mean that Title IX should be expanded to provide justice simply because the cry for justice has not been answered otherwise."

The women, Blackburn said, had not shown that Title IX would provide them "with the justice they seek."

The recruiting scandal dominated headlines in Colorado and beyond for months. Gov. Bill Owens at one point appointed the attorney general to lead a grand jury investigation, which resulted in an indictment against a former football recruiting aide for soliciting a prostitute and misusing a school cell phone.

A separate probe, backed by the CU Board of Regents, concluded that drugs, alcohol and sex were used to entice blue chip recruits to the Boulder campus but said none of the activity was knowingly sanctioned by university officials.

The school responded by overhauling oversight of the athletics department and putting some of the most stringent policies in place for any football recruiting program. The fallout included the resignation of university President Elizabeth Hoffman and the departure of athletics director Dick Tharp. Football coach Gary Barnett stepped down last fall.

Pat O'Rourke, an attorney for the university, said the school expected the decision.

"The university if very pleased with Judge Blackburn's ruling holding that the university is committed to a safe and non-discriminatory environment for all its students and faculty," he said.

Attorneys for the women said they would appeal.

"We agree with the court in its conclusion that this is a case that cries out for justice, and we disagree with the court that the evidence that has developed over the past several years should not provide relief to the plaintiffs," attorneys Seth Benezra and Kim Hult said.

Asked about their clients, Benezra said the women were "committed to going forward with the appeal."

In last year's ruling, the judge said Lisa Simpson and the other woman had failed to prove the school had actual knowledge of sexual harassment of female students by football players and recruits. He also said they didn't show the school was deliberately indifferent to any known sexual harassment.

Both standards must be met in order to sue a public university under Title IX. Blackburn also said he didn't think it could be proven that the university "was deliberately indifferent to the risk that CU football players and recruits would sexually assault female university students as part of the recruiting program."

Simpson, who agreed to have her name used in media reports, and the other woman said in their appeal there was evidence Blackburn didn't consider, including the alleged assault of a student trainer by football players two weeks before the Dec. 7, 2001, off-campus party.

However, Blackburn said nothing in the evidence suggests coaches or administrators knew of that alleged attack or other alleged assaults before the party.

The scandal erupted in 2004 when a deposition quoting Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan was made public. Keenan said she believed the university used sex and alcohol to lure top recruits and that school officials knew it.

The grand jury investigated claims that nine women since 1997 had been assaulted by football players or recruits, but declined to file charges in part because of the reluctance of any of the women to come forward.

The case was ugly at times: Simpson's videotaped deposition was released to the public and passages from her diary began showing up in newspapers and Web sites, including a statement that she wanted to "ruin the lives" of players who were there that night.

As the case wound its way through hearing after hearing, other allegations against the football team surfaced, including former CU kicker Katie Hnida's claim that a teammate raped her in 2000.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press