The wave of sexual abuse and assault allegations that have surfaced across the sports, entertainment and political landscape within the last month and a half – putting powerful names like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken in the spotlight – is a development that attorney and child victims advocate Marci Hamilton calls “a transformative era” in society.
“What I think this era is about is exposing the predators. We’re seeing names of important and powerful men that no one would have had the guts to name maybe a month ago,” says Hamilton, who is the chief executive officer of Child USA, a think tank whose mission is to prevent child abuse and neglect.
From new legislation passed by the Senate – and spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) which requires amateur athletic organizations and their members to report sex abuse allegations to law enforcement or designated child welfare agencies; to Hamilton and former Olympic speed skating hopeful and social justice advocate Bridie Farrell – herself a survivor of child sex abuse – pushing for the Child Victims Act to be passed in New York state, a country-wide movement against sex abuse and harassment appears to be gaining strength.
But it’s unclear what, if any, effect the news spotlight and national conversation on abuse might have on the lawsuit Jacksonville (Fla.) volleyball club director Sarah Powers-Barnhard filed in Florida state court against the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) last year, accusing the organization of violating Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Alleged abuse victims of volleyball coach receiving support
Powers-Barnhard testified against Rick Butler, an influential figure in the sport of volleyball, in front of a USA Volleyball ethics panel in 1995. Powers-Barnhard and two other women testified that Butler sexually abused them when they were teenagers in the 1980s.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said in 1995 that it found “credible evidence” the allegations against Butler were true, and Butler received a lifetime ban from USA Volleyball in 1995, only to be reinstated in 2000 in an administrative role. At the crux of Powers-Barnhard’s suit is the claim that the AAU still allows Butler to coach volleyball at AAU events – like the junior national volleyball tournament in Orlando earlier this year, when Powers-Barnhard coached at the same time. AAU’s policies bar membership to those accused of sexual misconduct.
“For the claim under Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), I expect that claim to survive the motion to dismiss,” says attorney Iva Ravindran, who represents Powers-Barnhard. “At this stage, on a motion to dismiss, any inferences are supposed to be construed in favor of the non-moving party, which is us.”
Powers-Barnhard filed a second amended complaint recently, and the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 22. It’s likely Judge Keith White will rule then on whether to dismiss the case or allow it to proceed. A negligence count was already tossed. Powers-Barnhard could appeal if the judge dismisses the case.
“I think the way we’ve stated the allegations, we have stated enough facts and plead all the elements of the claim, so I do not think this claim should be dismissed,” says Ravindran, of the firm Weil Snyder Schweikert & Ravindran. “It would be regrettable if this case was dismissed given how serious this issue is and how important it is for organizations who are entrusted to care for young athletes to know that they cannot just turn a blind eye and walk away without consequences. We found a way to address this problem through FDUTPA. Selling memberships by representing that the organization won’t tolerate sexual misconduct but then in fact tolerating it by giving membership to those for whom there is a reasonable basis to believe have engaged in sexual misconduct is plainly a deceptive practice and fits squarely into this statutory cause of action (FDUTPA). We hope the court sees it that way.”
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