Judge: Cheerleader's Sex Trafficking Claim Against NU Can Proceed

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A former Northwestern University cheerleader’s lawsuit alleging forced labor and sex trafficking against the school can proceed, a federal judge has ruled. 

As reported by The Daily Northwestern student newspaper, former NU cheerleader Hayden Richardson filed suit in January 2021, alleging that university employees repeatedly put Richardson and her peers in situations where they were groped, harassed and assaulted by fans and alumni for the purpose of soliciting donations to the school.

According to Richardson’s complaint, leaders in the athletics department continued to facilitate such meetings at tailgate parties and at the Wilson Club, an exclusive donor suite, even after she made them aware of the harassment faced by cheerleaders. She also alleges that the university failed to adequately investigate incidents reported under Title IX, according to Jacob Wendler, campus editor at The Daily Northwestern.

In June 2021, NU filed a motion to dismiss federal claims including forced labor, sex trafficking and forced-labor trafficking, as well as state claims related to breach of contract and emotional distress. The university did not move to dismiss the Title IX complaints.

U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang ruled Thursday that the university failed to argue that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act does not apply under the provisions listed by Richardson, according to Wendler's report.

The university disputed the federal claims on several points, claiming Richardson’s complaints did not fit the definitions of “commercial sex acts,” a “venture” and “serious harm” under the act.

Chang dismissed each of those arguments, noting that the “Spirit Squad Contract” Richardson signed with the university amounted to financial coercion. 

Had Richardson not attended mandatory events such as the ones at the Wilson Club — which allegedly were only required for female cheerleaders who were asked to wear “their tiny cheerleading uniforms” — and thus had to leave the team, she would have owed NU more than $10,000 for her scholarships and cheer-related expenses, according to her complaint.

“Viewing the allegation in Richardson’s favor, as required at the pleading stage, $10,000 at stake is more than enough for a reasonable person in Richardson’s shoes … to reasonably feel compelled to continue performing the services,” Chang wrote in his opinion.

As reported by Wendler, Chang also accepted Richardson’s claims that the defendants knowingly benefited from the events with donors, writing that an alleged indirect exchange of sexual activity for potential donations to the school was sufficient to file a claim under the act.

“The statutory definition does not require pleading any direct exchange — only that ‘on account of’ the sex act, act ‘anything of value’ was ‘given to or received by any person,’” Chang wrote. “As set out in the factual Background section in this Opinion, the allegations do plausibly allege an exchange of donations for the sex acts.”

Richardson’s emotional distress claims could proceed because the alleged conduct did not clearly occur outside of Illinois’ two-year statute of limitations and because the allegations were “extreme and outrageous” enough to allow for such a claim to be alleged, Chang wrote. 

However, Chang granted the university’s motion to dismiss the contract claims, ruling that NU’s sexual misconduct policy does not constitute a binding contract or unambiguous promise between the university and the student body.

NU has until Oct. 10 to respond to the complaint, at which time the case will move into the discovery phase, Wendler reported.

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