American gymnastics star McKayla Maroney was completely broken.
After suffering what Maroney claims was years-long sexual abuse at the hands of former USA Gymnastics (USAG) team physician Dr. Larry Nassar – “It started when I was 13 years old,” Maroney posted on her Facebook page last October – the 2012 London Olympics gold medal-winning gymnast signed a confidential settlement in December 2016 with USAG, the sport’s national governing body.
“In light of her worsening condition, and desperate need for psychological intervention, the Plaintiff McKayla Maroney entered into this agreement to obtain funds necessary to pay for lifesaving psychological treatment and care,” reads part of the explosive civil lawsuit Maroney filed against USAG, Nassar, Michigan State University, the U.S. Olympic Committee and 500 other individual anonymous defendants last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Maroney’s attorneys allege in the lawsuit that the now 22-year-old former Olympian was “forced” to sign the confidential agreement, and that USAG did so to buy Maroney’s silence and keep her from going public with the allegations about Nassar.
“The reason is (USA Gymnastics) wanted to keep it quiet,” says one of Maroney’s lawyers, Vince Finaldi. “They knew that (Maroney) was probably one of the most powerful voices that can blow this whole thing up, and how prominent a figure she was in gymnastics. They basically tried to gag her.”
Dozens of women have come forward accusing Nassar of sexual abuse, including Maroney’s 2012 Olympic teammate, Aly Raisman. Nassar was already sentenced last month to 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. Nassar, 54, also pleaded guilty in November in Michigan state court to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and he will be sentenced this month on those charges.
After Maroney went public with her claims about Nassar on social media, she filed the lawsuit two months later. The lawsuit describes in detail the alleged sexual abuse Nassar inflicted upon Maroney for years, and how Nassar allegedly molested Maroney before her medal-winning performances in 2012 at the London Olympics. But despite disclosing her ordeal and accusing Nassar of the serial abuse on Facebook, Maroney was within her rights to go public with the claims, says Finaldi.
USAG, according to Maroney’s lawsuit, was in violation of California law, specifically Section 1002 of the California Code of Civil Procedure.
“If the underlying circumstances of an offense constitute a felony child sexual event, then confidential settlement agreements are void as a matter of law. The legislature spoke very clearly to this issue. You can write whatever you want into a settlement, but if it’s against statute that’s right on point, then that provision is void as a matter of law, and unenforceable,” says Finaldi.
Noted civil rights attorney Glora Allred represented Maroney when she signed the confidential settlement, and noted attorney Margaret Holm was USAG’s counsel at the time. But it’s unclear why neither Allred nor Holm/USAG went forward with a confidential arrangement when it was in violation of California law. Maroney reportedly received $1.25 million in the settlement.
“The notion (Holm/USAG) would have not known about (the statute) is not believable. I know for a fact that they would have known about that,” says Finaldi. “The question is why they would do that. The reason why is they wanted to keep it quiet.”
Allred declined comment. USA Gymnastics released a statement to the Daily News which said: “Contrary to what is alleged in the lawsuit recently filed by McKayla Maroney’s new attorneys and being reported in the media, the assertion that USA Gymnastics entered into an illegal settlement with McKayla, or caused her to do so, is false.
“In fact, Gloria Allred, McKayla’s attorney at the time, initiated a private confidential mediation process, without any civil action pending, for resolution of her claim in 2016. Although USA Gymnastics cannot speak about the specifics of the mediation process, which is confidential under California law, the process culminated in a settlement agreement that included a mutual non-disclosure clause and a mutual non-disparagement clause,” the USAG statement said. “At all times, McKayla was represented by a California-based firm, known for championing the rights of victims of sexual abuse and harassment, that actively negotiated and approved the settlement agreement signed by McKayla.”
USAG condemned the “despicable crimes” committed by Nassar and praised Maroney and others for coming forward to speak publicly about their past.
“I think the confidentiality aspect is unenforceable, and therefore, they should be able to come back into court for all the legal theories they list,” says Marci Hamilton, an attorney and the chief executive officer of CHILD USA, a think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect.
“(Maroney’s attorneys) have a strong argument on the duty that was owed to her as a result of federal law. And they have a strong argument to say that the confidentiality provisions are unenforceable,” adds Hamilton. “What’s left open is how the original payment ($1.25 million) would play into a new settlement.”
Finaldi, however, says that while a settlement with USAG is a possibility, he and colleague John Manly, another of Maroney’s attorneys, are fully prepared to go to trial. If Maroney’s legal action takes that route, USAG, the USOC and Michigan State, where Nassar was employed, would be open to scrutiny through the discovery process.
“Settlement is always a possibility with any case,” says Finaldi. “The two most important things going forward are that we’re trying to get answers to questions our clients have, and to seek compensation for the victims. We reached out to the other side, and they’re steadfast in their position. We can go this route, which we’re very comfortable with.”
Maroney’s lawsuit alleges sexual harassment, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, constructive fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and demands a jury trial. Maroney seeks unspecified damages.
Raisman wrote a powerful first-person account of her ordeal in The Players’ Tribune in early December. The essay was entitled, “This is Survival,” and it followed Maroney’s harrowing account on Facebook in October.
“For me, the scariest night of my life happened when I was 15 years old,” Maroney wrote in her Facebook post. “I had flown all day and night with the team to get to Tokyo. (Nassar) had given me a sleeping pill for the flight, and the next thing I know I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment.’ I thought I was going to die that night.”
Maroney’s lawsuit alludes to the alleged incident in Tokyo and says that Nassar closed the “treatment room door,” and then “proceeded to insert his hand into the vagina and anus of McKayla Maroney.”
“No one — the USOC, USAG, MSU – has stepped up to the plate to say what they knew, when they knew it, how they knew, or to release any documents,” says Finaldi. “Turns out they did know.”
The USAG said in a statement to The News that the organization “has and will continue to take specific and concrete steps to prevent future abuse by adopting and vigorously enforcing the USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Policy, which requires mandatory reporting, defines six types of misconduct, sets standards to prohibit grooming behavior and prevent inappropriate interaction, and establishes greater accountability.”
Among some other measures taken by USAG have been to establish a toll-free number – 1-833-844-SAFE – as well as the safe sport email address ([email protected]) to make it easier for individuals to report abuse.
“We are focused on further developing a culture that has safe sport as a top priority throughout the organization,” USAG said.
But with powerful people in all fields – politics, entertainment, sports – being felled by accusations of sexual assault, rape and harassment, and with victims buoyed to come forward and speak in the midst of the burgeoning #MeToo movement, a reckoning among powerful institutions may occur as well.
“It was standard practice that organizations would force these confidentiality agreements in the past. There was such shame by victims, and they were led down a primrose path to accept confidentiality as far as a settlement,” says Hamilton. “But in the #MeToo era, for the victim, confidentiality is now an insult. In that (past) era, the victims were still being treated like they shouldn’t talk in a public square. People in power were playing on the humiliation and shame of it to keep all the secrets.”
Finaldi says that Maroney is not doing any media interviews, and probably won’t be for some time.
“The most important thing is making sure she’s safe, and has good psychiatric care,” says Finaldi. “These type of serial abuses don’t happen unless there are fundamental problems with the way (organizations) are doing business. The most important goal is to make sure those things are fixed. But until we have the answer of what went wrong, we can’t begin to answer the question of how to fix it.”
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