The Texans are no longer defendants in litigation involving women who have accused former quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct, according to a statement from plaintiffs' attorney, Tony Buzbee.
Buzbee announced Friday that 30 women, including Toi Garner, a flight attendant and massage therapist in training who sued Watson and the Texans and alleged the NFL team enabled Watson's behavior, a pattern of alleged sexual misconduct, by obtaining a Houstonian hotel and spa membership and giving him a nondisclosure agreement, have reached confidential financial settlements with the AFC South franchise.
Watson was not charged by two Texas grand juries as they declined to return indictments on allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct and he has repeatedly maintained his innocence. He is represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin. He faces potential discipline from the NFL under its personal conduct policy and former Judge Sue L. Robinson is expected to make a ruling on his status this month in the wake of a disciplinary hearing.
Watson was sued by 24 women and he has settled 20 of those lawsuits. Six additional women are now potential litigants against him. Buzbee stated that the four active lawsuits, which includes one from original accuser Ashley Solis, will remain active.
“I will have no further comment on the allegations or the Texans’ role, other than to say that there is a marked contrast in the way in which the Texans addressed these allegations, and the way in which Watson’s team has done so," Buzbee said in a statement. "As previously reported, only one of the 30 women who made allegations against the Texans filed a formal lawsuit. That particular lawsuit will be dismissed with prejudice as soon as the appropriate settlement paperwork is complete. It takes an incredible amount of fortitude for a victim of sexual misconduct to come forward. It is even more difficult when the alleged wrongdoer is famous, rich, and powerful.
"As I’ve said before, these cases started with one phone call, from one brave and strong woman: Ashley Solis. Because of her willingness to speak out, soon others followed. I admire Ashley Solis and the other woman who were courageous enough to make their voices heard. I hope their bravery serves as an example to others who have been subjected to similar conduct. Every story has a hero – in this story, that hero is Ashley Solis and the other woman who, despite the ridicule, criticism, and vitriol directed at them, endured. The four filed cases against Deshaun Watson will continue. We hope to try them all in the spring of next year. In the meantime, we will continue to do the important work to prepare for such.”
The Texans issued a statement after the confidential settlements were announced that emphasized the team admits no wrongdoing, but wanted to take a 'clear stand against any form of sexual assault and misconduct.'
"We were shocked and deeply saddened when we first learned of the allegations against our then franchise quarterback in March 2021," the Texans said in a statement from owner and co-founder Janice McNair, chairman and CEO Cal McNair and Hannah McNair, the vice president of the Texans' charitable foundation. "Although our organization did not have any knowledge of Deshaun Watson's alleged misconduct, we have intentionally chosen to resolve this matter amicably. This is not an admission of any wrongdoing, but instead a clear stand against any form of sexual assault and misconduct. We hope that today's resolution will provide some form of closure to the parties involved, our fans and the Houston community at large. As an organization, we will now turn our focus to the future and doing what we can to ensure respect for all."
Watson was traded to the Browns after he was not indicted and signed to an unprecedented, fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract.
When Buzbee sued the Texans in a 42-page filing, he stated previously:
"Today, we filed the first case of what will likely be many against the Houston Texans related to Deshaun Watson's behavior. Suffice it to say, the overwhelming evidence collected indicating that the Houston Texans enabled Watson's behavior is incredibly damning. We believe the Texans knew or most certainly should have known of Watson's conduct. Beyond that, we believe the filing speaks for itself."
The Texans issued a statement after the initial lawsuit was filed.
“We are aware of the lawsuit filed against us today," the team stated. "Since March 2021, we have fully supported and complied with law enforcement and the various investigations. We will continue to take the necessary steps to address the allegations against our organization.”
Buzbee has alleged that Watson sought out at least 66 different massage therapists and alleged the number is likely more than 100 therapists while employed by the Texans.
Watson requested and received an NDA from the Texans after one of the women, Nia Smith, accusing him of misconduct posted his personal information on social media, including his Cash App, threatened to expose him, and cursed him.
"I could really expose you, (expletive) " Smith wrote.
In a deposition, Bryan Burney, Watson's manager of marketing, said that his client said the Texans gave him an NDA and advised him "to be more careful and it was something they thought I should have."
The lawsuit includes a deposition from head athletic trainer Roland Ramirez stating that the team arranged for the Houstonian membership. Watson allegedly used the room for massages leading to alleged sexual misconduct. The lawsuit stated that Ramirez received multiple complaints from the general manager of the Houstonian 'regarding Watson and the number of women coming to Watson's room there."
"The fact that the room was provided by the Texans cloaked Watson's conduct with a veil of undeserved credibility," the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit stated that "Despite having a full training staff available to him with the Texans and despite having the services of a specified massage therapy entity -- Genuine Touch -- available to him, Deshaun Watson refused to have massages done at the Texans stadium and instead preferred to reach out to strangers on Instagram for massages, the Texans were well aware of Watson's preference. In fact, as early as June 2020, the owner of Genuine Touch -- Joni Honn complained to the Texans that Watson was seeking out unqualified strangers for massages via Instagram. Her stated concern to the Texans was that Watson was putting himself in danger of contracting Covid, or getting himself sued."
In another excerpt from Ramirez's deposition, it stated that Watson requested a massage table and the team allowed him to borrow one and it was returned.
"That was the only strange thing, I would say," Ramirez said of Watson borrowing a table. "We've always recommended that our players use the people we know and trust."
As for the NDA, Watson stated in his deposition he obtained it from Texans director of security Brent Naccara.
"Previously at the end of October/early November, someone released all my information from my number to my Cash App to all the things that I want private," Watson stated. "They put it out on social media, and I was getting bombarded with Cash App and text messages and all types of stuff, so I had to change that."
The lawsuit stated that Watson used the NDA "to be more careful" in massage therapy sessions with outside vendors. The lawsuit alleges that the Texans removed a social media post from Nia Smith, one of the women who sued Watson who threatened to expose Watson's alleged sexual misconduct, according to a deposition from Detective Kamesha Baker who investigated the Watson case for the Houston Police Department.
"Brent Naccara got it removed from Instagram," Baker said in her deposition. "He is the security for the Texans. I interviewed him and he told me that. He said based on what she said because it had Mr. Watson's personal information out there in the world. And so he was able to get it scrubbed from the Internet."
The lawsuit, now being dismissed with prejudice, includes direct messages from Watson and alleges the Texans failed to prevent Watson from "assaulting and harassing Plaintiff, negligently hiring, supervising and retaining Deshaun Watson, negligently controlling Watson, failing to properly supervise Watson, failing to create or enforce policies to prevent misconduct, failing to take precautions prior to the massages to prevent a recurrence of Watson's known prior conduct toward massage therapists, failing to warn Plaintiff of Watson's proclivities and his past conduct, failing to take affirmative steps during the massage to control his unusual sexual proclivities, providing Watson a safe haven so that he could continue his conduct, providing Watson a NDA to protect Watson from his conduct, providing Watson a room where he engaged in illicit behavior, removing from the Internet and covering up information that would have exposed Watson and warned other massage therapists to avoid Watson, failing to investigate Watson's unusual behavior, turning a blind eye to indications that Watson was seeking sex rather than legitimate massage therapy, failing to investigate complaints where it was acceptable for Watson and others on the team to seek sexual contact with massage therapists."
The lawsuit requested damages and requests a jury trial.
Watson, represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin and NFL Players Association outside counsel Jeffrey L. Kessler, is facing a potential one-year suspension, if not an indefinite one, according to sources. He was investigated by NFL senior vice president and special counsel for investigations Lisa Friel, a former Manhattan, NY, chief sex crimes prosecutor.
Robinson, a former Delaware district judge who's now a practicing attorney, is expected to issue a ruling in advance of training camp. This marks Robinson's first hearing involving NFL discipline and the first case heard under a revised personal conduct policy under the new collective bargaining agreement negotiated two years ago.
The NFL and the players' union have previously attempted to strike a compromise on a settlement of a proposed punishment of Watson, but sources emphasized that they never came close to a deal. The reasoning from the league behind a potential indefinite suspension, as the NFL imposed in the Michael Vick dog fighting scandal or Ray Rice's domestic violence case, would be to give them flexibility to potentially impose further discipline in case other allegations of misconduct surface. Although no DNA, audio, or video evidence exists in the cases, according to multiple sources, the NFL will use text messages, depositions, and interviews to make its argument.
Under NFL rules governing personal conduct policy matters, Watson has the right to appeal to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The appeal could also be heard by another appointed officer.
Watson's legal team will argue that he should receive little to no discipline under the NFL collective bargaining agreement based on the light discipline imposed previously against NFL owners Robert Kraft, Daniel Snyder, and Jerry Jones for allegations of sexual misconduct.
When the settlement was reached, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to Pro Football Network that the settlement wouldn't affect the ongoing league investigation, writing, "Today's development has no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process."
During the Browns' minicamp, Watson spoke to reporters for the first time since his introductory press conference.
"Like I said, I never assaulted anyone," Watson said. "I never harassed anyone or never disrespected anyone. I never forced anyone to do anything. I've been honest, and I've been truthful about my stance. I never forced anyone. I never assaulted anyone.
"That's what I've been saying from the beginning, and I'm going to continue to do that until all of the facts come out. On the legal side, I have to just go with the process of my legal team and the court of law."
Watson has met several times in Houston with Friel.
"I met with the NFL a couple of weeks ago and did everything they asked me to do," Watson said. "I answered every question truthfully that the NFL asked me, I spent hours with the people that they brought down, and that's all I can do, be honest and tell them exactly what happened. I know they have a job, and I have to respect that, so that's exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to cooperate, and they have to make a decision that's best for the league."
Daniel Moskowitz, a criminal and civil lawyer with an extensive history of representing players in NFL personal-conduct policy and other matters governed by the collective bargaining agreement, said that the settlements in this high-profile legal matter don't come as a surprise.
"Settlement shouldn't seem surprising," Moskowitz said. "Obviously, the claims and allegations command the highest seriousness. Yet, as often is the case in litigation, regardless of the validity of the claims alleged or a party's quest for justice, a settlement is reached due to certain optics and initially seemingly secondary factors that come to the forefront and facilitate a settlement. Here, despite Deshaun's proclaimed desire to clear his name, the prospect of prolonged, seemingly never-ending legal dispute clearly came into play for Deshaun's camp.
"The number of plaintiffs alone created logistical issues for the parties, which created a reality of years not months before this matter would have gone to trial. Tony Buzbee has the resources to go the distance. The prospect of protracted litigation was of no concern to Buzbee. At some point, resolution and the parties' personal desire to move forward means more than 'winning.'
"While many have commented that Deshaun and his camp need to brace for a punitive punishment from the NFL, one issue to consider/remember is the impact the #MeToo movement could have on all aspects of this matter. To be clear, this is not an attack on the merits and mission statement of #MeToo but to believe #MeToo wouldn't impact the outcome of this matter is arguably naïve.
"This case is a textbook example of what necessitated the founding/existence of #MeToo: ensuring justice for alleged sexual harassment victims. Yes, the truth matters, but given recent '#MeToo Backlash' -- notably, Johnny Depp's defamation trial -- one can anticipate the movement's leaders would focus their efforts on this matter."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.