Jury dismisses lawsuit claiming LSU officials retaliated against a former athletics administrator

Dec 20, 2023, 5:30 PM | Updated: 6:52 pm

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A jury on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit accusing top Louisiana State University officials of retaliating against an athletics administrator for reporting alleged inappropriate sexual behavior by a head football coach.

After six days of testimony, a panel of five women and three men rejected the suit’s claims, The Advocate reported. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan of New Orleans presided over the trial after all of the federal judges in Baton Rouge recused themselves.

Then-athletics administrator Sharon Lewis filed the federal lawsuit in 2021. She was fired the following year.

Coach Les Miles guided the 2007 LSU football team to a national title but was fired by the university in 2016. He lost his coaching job at Kansas in 2021, after LSU released a report that revealed school officials there considered firing him in 2013 because of his alleged behavior with female student workers. Miles has denied allegations of improper behavior.

The university had hired the Husch Blackwell law firm to conduct the report after a national newspaper scrutinized LSU’s handling of sexual assault cases implicating two former football players.

Lewis’ lawsuit said she was denied pay raises and subjected to verbal abuse after going to officials with the allegations against Miles — including her accusation that he told her there were “too many Black girls” employed in athletics and that a female student had accused him of “getting on top of her” on his office couch.

Lewis, a former heptathlete who won a national track championship while competing at LSU as a student, spent nearly 21 years working in the Tigers football program. Then-coach Nick Saban hired her as a recruiting coordinator in 2001 and she climbed the ladder to be associate athletic director for football recruiting and alumni operations in August 2020.

Lewis, 56, alleged that LSU’s board of supervisors allowed athletics department officials to retaliate against her for reporting alleged violations of Title IX and for lodging a 2021 complaint against the university with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She also said she was subjected to a hostile work environment.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination at universities that receive federal funding, and mandates that most university employees report those violations when they receive actual knowledge of them.

During closing arguments Wednesday, Lewis’ attorneys asked jurors to award her more than $6.3 million in compensatory damages and another $300,000 for emotional damages, The Advocate reported.

Her lead attorney, Larry English, reiterated a mantra he used to start the trial, telling jurors LSU fostered a “culture of fear, retaliation and violence” that victimized women in the athletics department.

“The undisputed evidence in this case shows that when people were charged with protecting women in the athletics department, they instead engaged in a hustle to protect the football coaches and their seven-figure salaries to continue winning football games,” he said.

LSU countered that Lewis was not preyed upon, subjected to a hostile workplace or discriminated against because of her gender. Attorney Michael Victorian told jurors that the statutory period for any of the claims ended in mid-2020, so all of her “baseless allegations” about sexual misconduct and harassment during Miles’ coaching tenure were not pertinent to the case.

“Sharon Lewis and her attorneys are trying to get you to fall for an emotional trick. That’s why they’re trying to trigger your sympathy,” he said. “It’s an emotional sleight of hand, ladies and gentlemen. That is the definition of a hustle.”

In a statement, LSU said it was pleased that the jury ruled in its favor.

“The simple truth is that Ms. Lewis was never retaliated or discriminated against. She was let go along with 41 other football staff members and coaches after a new head coach was hired,” the university said. “As an institution, over the past three years we have built a robust and nationally recognized Title IX office with more than 12 experts who are committed to educating and protecting our entire LSU community while moving swiftly and holding any offenders fully accountable. This will continue to be a priority for us.”

Lewis, surrounded by family members and her legal team, did not answer questions from reporters after leaving the courthouse but English told The Advocate his team is exploring legal options moving forward.

“We’re obviously disappointed. We think the evidence was compelling,” he said. “We felt like we put on a great case. But we’re in a system where the jury makes a decision … and the jury has spoken.”

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Jury dismisses lawsuit claiming LSU officials retaliated against a former athletics administrator