HOUSTON — Tony Buzbee, the plaintiffs’ attorney representing the female massage therapists who have accused Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct, called out the NFL for its personal conduct policy investigative process and challenged NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to severely punish the three-time Pro Bowl passer.
Watson was suspended for six games with no fine issued by jointly appointed NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson, but that decision has been appealed, and the league is seeking an indefinite suspension with the possibility of reinstatement after one year, a heavy fine, and a requirement that he undergo treatment. Goodell appointed former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey as the third-party designee to hear the NFL appeal of the Watson disciplinary matter.
Tony Buzbee: “Mr. Goodell, what will you do?”
“Every victim of sexual assault is watching Roger Goodell and the NFL right now,” Buzbee said during a press conference Thursday afternoon held at his law firm. “And this idea that Mr. Goodell is going hand it off to somebody independent? We don’t buy it. Mr. Goodell, what will you do? It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Buzbee also was critical of Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg. Two Texas grand juries, one in Harris County, declined to charge Watson with a crime, and he has maintained his innocence throughout the process.
“We believe the elected DA failed these women,” Buzbee said. “It was frustrating, but expected.”
The first accuser to file a civil lawsuit, Ashley Solis, spoke at the press conference. Solis was one of the 23 women that have reached a confidential settlement with Watson. There is one active civil lawsuit from a Buzbee client, a woman he said spoke to the police and the NFL.
“What do the actions of the NFL say to the little girls who have suffered at the hands of someone perceived to have power?” Solis said. “That it’s not a big deal? That they don’t care? Tough sh–? That’s what I’ve taken from their actions.
“So, instead, I’ll let my actions say something different to those same little girls. No matter how scary, big or powerful someone may seem, they are just humans. And, like all humans, we all have the right to have our voices be heard.”
Ashley Solis — first accuser of Deshaun Watson — said she has received death threats
Solis added that she is no longer afraid of Watson, and has also received death threats.
“These past 2 1/2 years have been a trying time,” Solis said. “I’ve received death threats. I’ve had angry people approach me in public.”
Buzbee quoted several of his clients’ reactions to the six-game suspension initially levied by Robinson. One said, per Buzbee, ‘It isn’t even a slap on the wrist, it’s a kiss on the cheek.” Another, Buzbee quoted as saying: ‘I feel like we’re invisible.”
Buzbee said that he made 10 women available to NFL investigators for interviews. He offered to present more but said the league wasn’t “really interested” in talking to them. The investigation was led by Lisa Friel, a former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor.
Buzbee said that he offered to provide sworn statements from his clients to the NFL for its disciplinary hearing, but there was no response. He said that none of his clients testified at the three-day hearing held in Delaware, and there was zero communication from the NFL to him or his law firm or clients.
NFL disciplinary process called ‘jumbled mess’
“It is a given that the NFL’s disciplinary process is a jumbled mess,” Buzbee said. “Nevertheless, our clients believed that with a new process in place with new people involved, things might be different. Unfortunately, we were wrong. It really makes you scratch your head and wonder, ‘What the devil is going on?'”
Buzbee emphasized that all 30 cases against the Texans, Watson’s former employer before being traded this offseason to the Browns for three first-round draft picks and signed to a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract, have been confidentially settled and that one case remains active against Watson from a woman who spoke to the police and NFL investigators.
Buzbee initially was speaking confidentially to Watson’s representatives about settling Solis’ claim. They declined to settle for $100,000. Buzbee said that his interactions with them left him “pissed,” bringing out the former Marine in him and compelling him to want to fight for Solis and other clients he signed up.
What’s next in the Deshaun Watson appeal process?
The NFL said, in a statement: “Commissioner Goodell has appointed the Hon. Peter C. Harvey as his designee to hear the appeal of the disciplinary decision involving Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson. Mr. Harvey served as the Attorney General of New Jersey and is now a partner at the Paterson Belknap firm in New York. He has also served as a federal prosecutor. He has deep expertise in criminal law, including domestic violence and sexual assault, and has advised the NFL and other professional leagues on the development and implementation of workplace policies, including the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Mr. Harvey has also served as the Commissioner’s designee in other arbitrations.
“The NFL’s appeal addresses whether, based on the findings made by Judge Robinson, the discipline should be modified to include a professional evaluation and treatment as determined by medical experts, an appropriate fine, and a longer suspension. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Mr. Harvey’s written decision will, ‘constitute the full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player (s), Club (s) and parties’ to the CBA.”
The National Football League has exercised its collectively bargained right to file an appeal in the Deshaun Watson disciplinary matter, formally submitting its response in the wake of the Cleveland Browns’ star quarterback being suspended for six games Monday by jointly appointed NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson.
The NFL appeal filing states that the league is seeking an indefinite suspension of Watson with the possibility of reinstatement after a one-year suspension, a significant fine, and a requirement that he undergo treatment, according to a league source. The league argued for a one-year suspension before Robinson during a June disciplinary hearing held in Delaware.
Roger Goodell has options surrounding the appeal under Article 46 of CBA
The NFL is expected to seek to increase Watson’s punishment, which has drawn heavy criticism for being too lenient after he settled civil lawsuits with 23 of 24 massage therapists who alleged graphic sexual misconduct. Watson was not charged with a crime by two Texas grand juries and has maintained his innocence.
One league source predicted a scenario where Watson could still receive a shorter, increased punishment of perhaps an eight to 10-game suspension and a multi-million dollar fine.
The NFL or the NFL Players Association, representing Watson in tandem with lawyer Rusty Hardin, had three days to file an appeal, and now the league has done so.
Any response to the appeal by the NFLPA must be filed in writing within two business days. Once that response is filed, then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or a designee will decide who hears the appeal. According to Article 46 of the CBA, “the Commissioner or his designee will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement.”
According to the Personal Conduct Policy, the appeal will be: (i) processed on an expedited basis; (ii) limited to consideration of the terms of discipline imposed; and (iii) based upon a review of the existing record without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered. No additional evidence or testimony shall be presented to or accepted by the Commissioner or his designee. Any factual findings and evidentiary determinations of the Disciplinary Officer will be binding to the parties on appeal, and the decision of the Commissioner or his designee, which may overturn, reduce, modify or increase the discipline previously issued, will be final and binding on all parties.”
Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, Goodell can personally hear the appeal or appoint a third-party arbiter.
“On Monday, Judge Sue L. Robinson, the independent Disciplinary Officer jointly appointed by the NFL and NFL Players Association, issued her ruling in the Personal Conduct Policy matter regarding Deshaun Watson. Under the 2020 NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the factual findings of the Disciplinary Officer are binding and may not be appealed,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “Judge Robinson found that Mr. Watson violated the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy on multiple occasions and suspended him for six games. The CBA affords the NFL or NFLPA the right to appeal the discipline imposed by the Disciplinary Officer. The NFL notified the NFLPA that it will appeal Judge Robinson’s disciplinary decision and filed its brief this afternoon. Commissioner Roger Goodell will determine who will hear the appeal.”
The official ruling on Deshaun Watson
Robinson issued a lengthy ruling on Monday explaining her legal reasoning for why she suspended Watson for six games.
“Although this is the most significant punishment ever imposed on an NFL player for allegations of nonviolent sexual conduct, Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before ever reviewed by the NFL,” Robinson stated in her 16-page ruling, which explained that she leaned on precedent and the NFL being reactionary to public outcry, as the league did in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence case.
The PDF below is the full ruling on Deshaun Watson, as written by Robinson.Deshaun Watson Ruling