BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — LSU has been sanctioned in a federal lawsuit that alleges the university protects athletic programs from investigations into sexual misconduct. Data related to allegations that coaches were covering up or ignoring sexual misconduct was wiped from university-issued devices, which the judge called “particularly egregious” in light of a standing protective order covering electronic records and evidence.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott D. Johnson noted in an order issued Friday that text messages and phone data from former coaches was wiped from the devices, though LSU knew litigation was pending.
The lawsuit was initially filed in April 2021 in U.S. District Court Middle District of Louisiana. The plaintiffs argue that the university’s Title IX and sexual misconduct response program are inadequate. The women who filed said LSU — and some individuals who have since been released from the suit — keeps investigations under wraps and fails to investigate potential sexual misconduct, which harms women and LGBTQ+ people. The LSU board is the only remaining defendant.
When the lawsuit was filed, Julia and Michael Sells co-captained the women’s tennis team. They were dismissed from the lawsuit in January 2022 and left LSU around April 2022.
The pair had been accused of failing to report assaults, harassing students and encouraging, ignoring abuse or assault, according to Johnson. He said the facts surrounding their involvement is still relevant.
Information that could only be found on their university-issued phones is pertinent to the suit, and the Sells say they handed over the phones to the university when they left with all the information intact. When they were provided for inspection in January, both devices had been wiped.
A December 2021 protective order from the court has been issued to protect digital information for the case. The data loss, the judge said, was “particularly egregious” even if caused by lack of care rather than malice.
Johnson said the lack of data showing what the Sells said to each other and the people around them creates a hole in the plaintiff’s evidence that can’t be remedied, so sanctions are appropriate, whether the data deletion was intentional or not.
Here is a statement from LSU on the ruling regarding the cell phone data ruling and sanctions:
“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling. Former LSU employees Michael and Julia Sells were represented by their own counsel when this litigation began and at the time they returned the phones to LSU. It was incumbent upon their counsel to inform them of their obligations to preserve the data in their possession. LSU IT staff who received the devices testified that the phones were empty of all data when examined after their return. LSU took appropriate steps to protect data controlled by and in the possession of LSU.”Louisiana State University
The amount to be paid will depend on factors including the plaintiffs’ fees, costs and expenses incurred around the lack of messages.