University of Maryland guard Dez Wells filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking damages against his former school, Xavier University, and its president, Father Michael Graham, over what he asserts was his wrongful expulsion last summer.
The suit alleges Xavier failed to follow its own policies when deciding to expel him following a 2012 allegation of sexual assault. The local prosecutor investigated the case and not only declined to charge Wells but declared in media accounts the allegation "didn't reach anything close to a standard of proof" and "should never have gotten to the point where someone's reputation is ruined." A grand jury also declined to indict the basketball star.
The lawsuit, filed at the United States District Court in Cincinnati, seeks monetary compensation as well as an overturning of the expulsion to clear Wells' name of what he calls a false accusation.
Wells, according to his attorney, has no interest in returning to Xavier, but has suffered "severe emotional distress" for having been essentially deemed a rapist – and heckled as such while playing road games. This, Wells said, is his best chance to set the record straight with the public and hold Xavier accountable.
"From the moment this nightmare began, I've been trying to get everyone to understand that I am innocent," Wells said in a statement through attorney Peter Ginsberg. "The supposed leaders at Xavier destroyed my reputation. It needs to make this right. Xavier needs to set the record straight."
Xavier released a statement from Father Graham to Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday evening.
"We have read the complaint and the allegations of wrongdoing are unfounded and cannot be supported," Graham said. "The process used by the Xavier University Conduct Board (UCB) applies to all of our students and is the standard used in American universities. After members of the Conduct Board reached their decision, the matter was considered and upheld in an appeal. The sanction for the offense was expulsion.
"The University has never revealed the specific charge against Dez Wells other than to say he was found responsible for a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. The university will vigorously defend the process and the decision."
After being expelled in the summer of 2012, Wells transferred to Maryland. The NCAA, in a rare move, ruled on appeal to grant him immediate eligibility rather than make him sit out a season like most transfers. He started 37 of 38 games and led the Terrapins in scoring with 13.1 points a game. He will be a focal point of the team again this season.
It is highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for an active, high-profile player to file a federal suit against another NCAA member institution. Adding to the uniqueness of the case, Wells' most powerful advocate is Hamilton, Ohio prosecutor Joseph Deters, who has forcefully and publicly, defended Wells and blasted Xavier's handling of the incident as "fundamentally unfair."
"If I thought [Wells] did this, he'd be in prison," Deters says in the lawsuit. "I wouldn't pull any punches."
Wells, a native of Raleigh, N.C., was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team following the 2011-12 season.
Last summer, on the night of June 7, 2012, he engaged in what he asserts was consensual sex with an Xavier student.
The two, among others, had been hanging out that night in their dorm playing a game of group "truth or dare," according to the lawsuit. "A number of the dares were sexual in nature," the suit alleges, including lap dances and stripping. The two kissed multiple times during the evening before going to the woman's room, where, according to the suit, she asked if Wells had a condom before they had sex.
The next day she reported to the campus police she had been sexually assaulted. She later met with Cincinnati police but declined to press charges. Undeterred, Deters, the local prospector assigned two staff members to look into the incident.
Deters, according to the suit, quickly "developed serious concerns about [the] truthfulness of the allegations." He left messages with Father Graham, the Xavier president, in an effort to convey those concerns but the messages were not returned, the suit alleges. He later discussed with another Xavier official and instructed his concerns be passed on to Graham.
Before the prosecutor finished his work and a grand jury cleared Wells, however, the player was called before Xavier's University Conduct Board, where the lawsuit alleges a group of administrators, faculty and students "impermissibly placed the burden on Wells to prove his innocence."
The suit runs through a litany of what it alleges are breaches of the UCB rules and procedures. It also hammers the group for either dismissing or ignoring the concerns of the prosecutor's office, failing to wait for "vital laboratory tests" and allowing for just a brief, two-day appeal process. It also alleged UCB members "had received woefully inadequate training" to make a ruling on these kinds of cases.
The UCB expelled Wells on Aug. 3, 2012. On Aug. 28, a grand jury declined to indict him and Deters took to the local media to stand up for the player and urge Xavier to reconsider.
Ginsberg alleges Xavier acted unfairly to Wells because it was under pressure from an investigation by the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights for mishandling previous allegations brought against male students and treating them too leniently.
"It was much more anxious to appease the Department of Education then satisfy its own obligations to fairness for its own students," Ginsberg told Yahoo! Sports Tuesday night. "Unfortunately, Dez was the sacrificial lamb."
Ginsberg cites Father Graham ignoring the prosecutor's urge for caution and reconsideration as proof.
"It should have been clear to university officials on their own that the accusations were fictitious," Ginsberg said. "Add to that a trained professional with no skin in the game was imploring Father Graham to hold off and act responsibly and Father Graham simply ignored Mr. Deters admonitions."
The suit seeks a jury trial in Ohio and seeks unspecified damages. Outside the specific wording of the lawsuit, Wells stated he is also seeking an apology from Father Graham.
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