Judge denies motion to dismiss sexual assault lawsuit against university

Collegian file photo

AIDAN GREGG | MANAGING EDITOR | agregg1@butler.edu 

Content warning: explicit references to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault and grooming

A fourth lawsuit by a former women’s soccer player alleging sexual assault and grooming by former assistant athletic trainer Michael Howell was filed against Butler University since The Butler Collegian last reported on the case in July 2023. The four lawsuits — filed by current and former Butler women’s soccer players — have since been consolidated into one suit against the university, Howell and Ralph Reiff, the senior associate athletic director for student-athlete health, performance and well-being. The defendants — Butler, Howell and Reiff — moved for the dismissal of certain counts against them. The motion was denied on Jan. 22, 2024. 

Initial allegations 

The original plaintiffs — Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2 and Jane Doe 3 — said that Howell inappropriately touched their breasts and genitalia while providing athletic massages. Court documents say that during one such massage, Howell massaged Doe 2 under her shorts “so forcefully that her groin was bruised and painful the next day.” 

During away games, Does 1-3 said that women’s soccer coaches Rob Alman and Tari St. John knew Howell would conduct these massages in his private hotel room, rather than the conference room the university had booked for such treatment. 

The suit identified Reiff’s and Butler University’s failure to educate players and coaches on proper protocol for athletic treatment and massage. Additionally, the suit said that Reiff neglected to ensure that Howell complied with standard treatment practices. 

The players are three of six athletes who formally reported sexual abuse from Howell to the university. On Sept. 28, 2021, four of these players reported Howell’s misconduct to St. John. Doe 2 reported Howell’s misconduct to St. John on Oct. 2, shortly after her teammates’ reports. St. John informed then-Title IX coordinator Maria Kanger who filed a complaint against Howell on Oct. 6. Howell was placed on administrative leave at that time. 

The Title IX investigation found that Howell “exploited his authority and power over Ms. Doe to isolate, manipulate, control, and sexually assault her, which he did on multiple occasions without her consent, and for his own sexual gratification.” Butler University said in an email to students and families on Aug. 26, 2023, that Howell was fired in summer 2022 and that “Butler looks forward to the opportunity to show the high integrity and responsiveness of the coaches and senior personnel.” 

A fourth player alleges grooming, manipulation and sexual abuse 

A fourth player, Jane Doe 4, filed a suit against Howell, Reiff and Butler University on Aug. 17, 2023. She is one of the six other players who previously reported Howell’s misconduct, resulting in the Title IX investigation. Doe 4, like Does 1-3, is suing for negligence and gross negligence by Reiff and Butler and for battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress by Howell and Butler. 

Doe 4 said in the lawsuit that Howell’s misconduct began in the fall of 2019, during her sophomore year, and continued through her senior year. After asking “probing questions about her personal life” in a meeting in his office — with the blinds and door closed — “Howell told Ms. Doe [4] she could trust him, she could always come talk to him about her problems, and that he cared about her.” Doe 4 added that she began to cry due to Howell’s questioning. 

During massages, Doe 4 said Howell repeatedly exposed and touched her groin and breast areas when such contact was unnecessary. In a later session, Doe 4 said Howell “rubbed his genitalia against her hands at least three times” while breathing heavily and “had positioned himself so that she had no way of moving her hands elsewhere.” In the same session, he stroked Doe 4’s head and walked away without explanation to a place she could not see. Doe 4 said he returned after a few minutes and ended the session. 

Doe 4 and her teammates’ lawsuits have been consolidated into one suit against Howell, Reiff and Butler University. Doe 4 — like her teammates — said that Reiff and Butler University failed to protect players from Howell’s abuse and their neglect allowed Howell to maintain an intimidating and toxic environment. 

Howell has denied the claims from Does 1-4. 

Defendants object to use of pseudonyms 

Citing the risk of further mental and emotional harm and lack of compelling public interest in knowing their identities, the plaintiffs filed to proceed with the case under pseudonyms. They added that the defendants already knew the player’s identities because of the Title IX investigation which had already taken place. 

Howell, Reiff and Butler University responded in opposition to the plaintiffs’ motion for the use of pseudonyms for the athletes. They argued that the use of the pseudonyms may unfairly prejudice the defendants. The legal team for the defendants said that the plaintiffs have weaponized their anonymity in pursuing press coverage to further prejudice Howell, Reiff and Butler. 

The District Court for Indiana’s southern district granted all requests by the plaintiffs to proceed under pseudonyms and rejected the requests of the defendants to remove anonymity. District Court Judge Kendra Klump ruled that there was significant evidence for risk of mental and emotional harm, especially given the plaintiffs’ allegations that Howell possesses potentially damaging photographs and information on them. She further disagreed with the claim that media attention was sought. 

Butler and Reiff file for dismissal 

The university and Reiff filed on Sept. 19, 2023 for the dismissal of the counts of negligence and gross negligence. This would have eliminated all counts against Reiff from the lawsuit. 

The defendants wanted the claims dismissed on the grounds that the suit falls within the scope of Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act. Under Indiana law, medical malpractice refers to a situation where established standards of care are not met, resulting in harm to the patient. Such cases must be referred to a medical review panel prior to being filed in court. Butler and Reiff attempted to have the plaintiffs’ claims dismissed because they did not bring their case to a medical review panel first. 

Additionally, Butler and Reiff’s legal team said that Indiana law allows negligent supervision claims against employers and not employees. If this were true, Reiff, as an employee and Howell’s supervisor, could not be held liable for negligence. Because Butler is named with Howell in the counts of battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the university would still be held liable. 

District Court Judge James R. Sweeney II denied the request on Jan. 22, 2024. Sweeney said that as a sexual abuse case, this does not fall under the Medical Malpractice Act because “sexual abuse is not medical care.” He added that Butler and Reiff’s legal team misinterpreted Indiana law and that — in appropriate circumstances — a supervisory employee could supervise negligently, and thus be liable. 

The trial is set to begin on June 16, 2025. The players seek to “recover [their] injuries and damages, compel Butler to institute safety protocols to protect [their] current teammates and future athletes, compel Butler to contact former student-athletes to assess whether they were also abused by Howell and need resources and assistance, prevent Howell from maintaining licensure that would give him the ability to abuse others, and to hold Defendants responsible for their acts and omissions that enabled a dangerous predator to gain unfettered access to and abuse [them] and many other young female athletes.” 

The Collegian will continue to investigate and report on this story.


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