Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is facing a 23rd civil lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct. This marks the first lawsuit filed against the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback this year. Like the previous 22 lawsuits, they were filed by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.
Deshaun Watson facing 23rd lawsuit alleging inappropriate behavior
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Harris County by Buzbee on behalf of Nia Smith, alleged that Watson touched the woman between her legs and made requests for sex. The lawsuit stated that Watson refused to cover himself, “became aggressive,” and “repeatedly requested that Plaintiff have sex with him.”
The lawsuit added that the plaintiff quit her job at New U. Salon Spa after complaining about Watson’s alleged misconduct to the owner of the spa, Dionne Louis.
Per the lawsuit, the woman decided to file her lawsuit after watching HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel” last week.
“In that piece, plaintiff was struck by the courage of the victims willing to step forward and speak and was extremely displeased by Watson and his legal team’s mistreatment and revictimizations of the plaintiffs,” the lawsuit stated. “But it was Watson himself claiming that even now he has ‘no regrets’ and has done nothing wrong that solidified her resolve. She brings this case seeking minimum compensation, but to obtain a court finding that Watson’s conduct was wrong.”
Two Texas grand juries declined to charge Watson, 26, with any crimes last year and he is no longer being investigated by law enforcement authorities. He may still face punishment from the NFL this year under its personal conduct policy.
“Today we filed suit for the 23rd plaintiff in this litigation,” Buzbee said in a statement. “Other cases may come. The Watson defense team has vilified these women and this cause. Shame on them! We look forward to trying this case in court.”
Rusty Hardin responds
Hours after Buzbee’s statement, Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, responded and stated that Watson “vehemently” denies the allegations and said that the plaintiff has a vendetta against the NFL player and “jealously and angrily” posted Watson’s personal information on social media last year.
“Deshaun Watson vehemently denies the allegations, just as he has since she first discussed them with members of our firm in March of last year. She repeated the allegations on social media in August and he denied them then. The only thing new about her contentions is the embellishment making them more extreme than prior versions. Deshaun’s denial remains the same.
“The two highly respected lawyers from our firm, Letitia Quinones and Rachel Lewis, also vehemently deny there was any coercion or intimidation involved in the very cordial meeting at Vic and Anthony’s (Mr. Buzbee and the plaintiff are not even right about where the meeting was, much less what was said). They met her to see if she was one of Mr. Buzbee’s then still anonymous plaintiffs. At that time Mr. Buzbee refused to identify his clients. The suggestion that either of these two accomplished lawyers would have said “us black women must stick together” is absurd. The interview was so congenial, she joined the lawyers for dinner afterwards.
“We are aware that more than a year ago she had other lawyers representing her and they ultimately terminated the representation. This plaintiff has long had a vendetta against Deshaun since she jealously and angrily published Deshaun’s personal data on social media in November 2020. In filing her lawsuit now she was obviously not influenced by recent developments. We are not surprised Mr. Buzbee was willing to say just about anything to get more publicity. He knows the NFL continues to investigate these cases, and this is a transparent attempt to further punish the man he sees as a potential payday.”
Watson’s accusers call his contract ‘a big screw you’
During a segment on HBO’s Real Sports that recently aired, two women took issue with Watson receiving a fully guaranteed $230 million contract from the Browns after being traded from the Houston Texans.
“It’s just like a big ‘screw you,'” Ashley Solis said during an interview with HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel conducted by reporter Soledad O’Brien. “That’s what it feels like. That we don’t care. He can run and throw, and that’s what we care about.”
Solis, the first accuser against Watson, also told HBO she felt threatened by Watson following their massage session.
“He just said, ‘I know you have a career to protect,'” Solis said. “‘And I know you don’t want anyone messing with it just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.’ To me, that’s when I got really scared. That sounded like a threat to me.”
Another accuser, Kyla Hayes, characterized the contract as “sick,” adding, “I felt like he’s being rewarded for bad behavior.”
Solis and Hayes both reiterated the accusations they’ve made in previous interviews and in court filings in Harris County District Court as they told their version of what transpired in the massage therapy sessions.
Solis told HBO, “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. And I pulled my hand away instantly, and I started crying. And I told him that I was done. I don’t wanna do this anymore.’’
Hayes said that Watson “wanted me to kinda make a V motion in his pelvic area. So go across his stomach to his thighs, back to his stomach. I just kept massaging and did what he asked until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it. He was moving his penis back and forth as my hands moved as well. At some point, he did ejaculate. That was mortifying and embarrassing and disgusting.’’
Multiple sources, including law enforcement officials, have said that there is no audio, video, or DNA evidence, in this case.
Watson did not comment to HBO, with his attorney, Rusty Hardin, citing the NFL’s ongoing investigation as the reason why. Watson has been participating in the Browns’ organized team activities and hosted several teammates on a team-bonding trip to The Bahamas last week.
Watson has denied all wrongdoing publicly and through Hardin. No settlement discussions are being conducted.
The NFL, led by former Manhattan chief sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel, is conducting an ongoing personal-conduct policy investigation regarding Watson, and he could potentially face a suspension and a fine even though he was not charged with a crime.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday afternoon at the league meetings that the investigation is nearing its end but offered no timetable on when a decision on potential discipline would be rendered.
Rusty Hardin: Watson ‘never did anything inappropriate with these women’
Hardin released a video statement to Pro Football Network and other outlets in advance of the HBO program.
In his statement, Hardin repeatedly denied that Watson had forced any of the massage therapists to have sexual relations. He acknowledged, as he did last year at the outset of the case, that Watson had consensual sexual relations with three of the complainants.
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) May 25, 2022
“We just did a deposition yesterday and her deposition, her case, was the third one filed and the first one to allege force, and the world went wild over it,” Hardin said. “Deshaun’s reputation was horrible. For 30 days, we didn’t even know who she was because they were filed anonymously. And then when we get to her deposition yesterday, she admitted under oath, there was no force. He used no force against her. And this is the one they gave the biggest scream when this first started. Nobody really wanted to deal much with the fact that two different grand juries found there were no criminal events. The grand jury decides probable cause. Is there any basis for believing there was a crime committed, whether it’s a felony or a misdemeanor? And both of those grand juries found no probable cause to believe any crime at all was committed.
“That should have been given great sway because originally there were allegations, he used force against these women. Turns out only three of the 22 lawsuits involve any allegation of force and then when subjected to investigation by law enforcement, and presentation toa grand jury, it was found no force was used. There was no indication of a crime involving any type of force. As we’ve said, as Deshaun has insisted under oath, each of those three occasions were consensual and instituted by the women. But in the other … 19 cases there was no sexual activity. And Deshaun has already given nine depositions – 11 now – and sworn under oath that there was no sexual activity except those three incidents, and they were consensual.”
Hardin acknowledged in his statement that sexual misconduct is a large problem in society. He emphasized that his client has been wrongfully accused.
“We have a tremendous social problem in this area, I agree, but the solution is not to assume every allegation is true,” Hardin said. “Each one ought to be looked at separately and judged on its own merits. And if that happens, we’re comfortable that Deshaun has been telling the truth all along. He never did anything inappropriate with these women and certainly he never harmed them and never did anything that was not consensual.”
Another attorney representing Watson, Leah Graham, spoke with HBO and said the NFL player “has no regrets because he did nothing wrong.”
“He did nothing wrong in these massages,” Graham said. “And although, to your first question, ‘How can he be innocent?’ I think the real question is, ‘What evidence is there of any guilt?'”
Graham was asked by HBO to explain how Watson “unintentionally ending up having sex with people who are giving you professional massages?”
Graham replied, “Well, in every massage, I will tell you he did go, intending just for a professional massage, and only those three instances where sexual conduct occurred — consensual sexual activity — it occurred after the massage session had ended. And Mr. Watson has testified and is insistent that that sexual activity was initiated by the plaintiff in every single instance. As he testified in his depositions last week, yes, he has no regrets because he did nothing wrong. He did nothing wrong in these massages.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyer issued statement ahead of HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ program
Buzbee issued a statement in advance of the program.
“As was the case with speaking with law enforcement and the NFL, we left the decision whether to speak publicly up to the clients themselves,’’ Buzbee wrote. “Two chose to do so. These women are the most brave and courageous I’ve ever met. This firm is extremely proud to represent them. During the filming process I was impressed with HBO’s diligence and insistence on fairness. Despite our requests, HBO refused to provide us beforehand the questions they intended to ask.
“And, I can tell you, hard questions were in fact asked — not only to our clients but to me as well. This firm has been trying and winning civil cases for twenty-five years; we are extremely confident in these cases. As each witness testifies in the pre-trial discovery process, the evidence against Deshaun Watson continues to mount. The walls, as they say, are closing in. We look forward to trying these cases in court as soon as practicable. We are very confident that, in the end, justice will be done.”
Graham and Hardin have both alleged that Buzbee took the cases seeking publicity.
“It’s 22 women,’’ Graham said. “It’s one lawyer. There’s only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.’’
The timeline leading up to the HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ Interview
During his introductory press conference following the trade from the Texans, Watson was asked dozens of questions in regard to his character and how he plans to conduct himself moving forward
“I understand the seriousness of the allegations,” Watson said at the time. “I never assaulted any woman, I never disrespected any woman, and I never harassed any woman in my life. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way. Over the course of my life, that’s not in my DNA. As far as the details of actually the things they’re alleging, I can’t speak on that because there’s an ongoing investigation. In the future, once everything is resolved, I will sit down and love to talk about it…I understand that there’s going to be a stain that’s probably going to stick with me for a while. I’ve never done the things these people are alleging. I’m going to continue to fight for my name and clear my name.”
Browns general manager Andrew Berry addressed the allegations in an opening statement.
“We as an organization know this transaction has been very difficult for many people, particularly women in our community,” Berry said. “We realize it has triggered a range of emotions. The nature of the allegations weighed heavily on all of us. We do have confidence and faith in Deshaun as a person. If we didn’t get comfortable with Deshaun the person, it wouldn’t have mattered how talented he was. We wouldn’t have pursued the trade.”
Toward the end of the press conference, Berry was asked directly if he believes in Watson’s innocence and replied: “We believe in Deshaun the person.”
Watson was asked if he would change anything about his actions.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Watson said. “The things off the field that came up caught me by surprise, I never did anything that these people are alleging. I continue to work to be a better player, a better person and a better son.”
In a Zoom press conference a short while after Watson’s press conference, Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam spoke about the trade.
‘We understood a lot of people would not be comfortable with it and would criticize it,” Jimmy Haslam said. “We are confident in time that he will gain their trust.”
Dee Haslam said that she and her husband spoke with their daughters and other people about this decision.
“We respect our fans and their feelings,” Dee Haslam said. “This is a really tough subject. I think we knew this could trigger a lot of emotions. I think the conversations coming out of this have been helpful to us to understand the issues. This has been a very hard and difficult journey for our families. It was really hard. We had to work really hard to get comfortable with the decision. We knew it could trigger emotions from individuals who have been through sexual abuse. Our compassion is very deep.”
The NFL previously decided not to place Watson on the commissioner exempt list due to the grand juries in Harris County and Brazoria County declining to indict the Georgia native on 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct.
Roger Goodell addressed the situation in March
During the NFL owners’ meetings in March, Goodell addressed the Watson situation.
“The civil cases were in play over the last year,” Goodell said at the NFL owners’ meetings. “The only thing that’s changed is the criminal element has been at least resolved, and that was an important element in the context of the commissioner exempt list as discussed with the Players Association. So, that was important.
“If the criminal had proceeded, that more than likely would have triggered the commissioner exempt. I think at this point, the civil case in and of itself would not do that. If there’s a violation of the personal conduct policy, that may trigger something, but that more than likely trigger some kind of discipline in some fashion.”
Under NFL collective bargaining agreement rules, a discipline officer jointly appointed by the league and the NFL Players Association decides on a potential suspension. Watson remains eligible to participate in all offseason activities, and coach Kevin Stefanski said that he does expect him to participate in the Browns’ offseason program.
“We’re going to let the facts lead us, find every fact we can,” Goodell said. “At least there is a resolution from the criminal side of it. Our investigation hopefully will have access to more information. We will speak to everyone who can give us a perspective.”
Watson didn’t play in any games last season and was paid his entire $10.54 million salary. Since he had requested a trade, the Texans decided not to have him play and risk potential injury or his value.
The Browns agreed to send three first-round picks, a 2023 third-rounder, a 2022 fourth-rounder, and a 2024 fourth-rounder to the Texans in exchange for Watson and a 2024 sixth-round selection.
Watson received a $1 million base salary and a $45 million signing bonus for salary-cap reasons, protecting the bulk of his compensation from losing large game checks to a suspension. The NFL can impose a fine as a disciplinary measure, too.
“The personal conduct policy is very serious to us and it does not need a criminal (charge),” Goodell noted. “A decision will be made on whether there should be any discipline and what it is.”
The NFL has precedent for punishing players who are facing civil litigation that weren’t charged with a crime. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused of a sex crime, had a six-game suspension reduced to four games. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, also investigated by Friel on a domestic violence allegation, was also suspended for six games.
“The personal conduct policy is something that is very important to us, so the personal conduct policy does not need a criminal violation to be a violation of the personal conduct policy,” Goodell said. “So, they recognize that that’s something we’re going to pursue. We’re going to make sure that we get to the bottom of the facts and make sure how it applies to the personal conduct policy. That’s where we are at this point. When we get to that, a decision will be made whether there should be discipline and if so what is it.
“Our people are working on it. Obviously, these are serious charges. We’re looking at this seriously. We now have obviously, at least on the criminal side of it, obviously there are still civil charges that are going on, so our investigators hopefully will have access to more information and that will be helpful obviously at getting to the conclusion of what are the facts and was there a violation of the personal conduct policy, but that determination will be made by a joint discipline officer established by the NFLPA and the NFL. She will make that decision when the facts are all in and we’ll see. There’s no time frame on that.”