A Chicago federal judge has given the green light to a potential multimillion-dollar class action against an Aurora volleyball coach and his club volleyball program, which alleges the club failed to protect its athletes from the coach, who has been accused of raping and sexually abusing underaged players.
On Jan. 18, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly granted the request from named plaintiff Laura Mullen to certify a class of potentially hundreds of others, or more, who enrolled their daughters in volleyball programs run through the Great Lakes Volleyball Center, and particularly the Sports Performance Volleyball Club run by coach Rick Butler.
Mullen and her attorneys with the Chicago law firm of Edelson P.C. brought the case to Kennelly’s court in 2018 in the wake of accusations against Butler, who sports network ESPN called “the most powerful coach in youth volleyball,” given his past ability to place players in top college programs nationwide.
Past players have accused Butler of using “his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls, and likely more.” USA Volleyball and the Amateur Athletic Union have banned Butler, who has also been the subject of state findings regarding sexual misconduct with minors.
According to Mullen’s complaint, Butler’s accusers’ stories have similar themes. Other than one girl who lived with Butler, Mullen said all alleged victims were candidates for scholarships at elite collegiate programs, giving Butler leverage to wield “abusive emotional, psychological and physical tactics to shame the girls and put them in vulnerable positions.” He allegedly also would use the same tactics to prevent them from stopping or revealing the abuse, which allegedly dates back as far as 1981.
The complaint also named Butler’s wife, Cheryl Butler, as a defendant, accusing her of also calling former players to threaten them, to prevent them from going public with abuse allegations.
According to the complaint, Mullen’s daughters were not victims of sexual abuse while participating in GVLC programs after 2012, but allegedly were subjected to physical and emotional abuse which led them to leave the program.
The complaint alleges the GLVC and Butler committed fraud by not revealing the abuse and warning families and players of the coach’s past and current problems. In the lawsuit, Mullen said parents “would never have sent their girls” to the GLVC club had they known “a child sexual predator would coach their teenage daughters.”
In the complaint, they asked the court to approve a class of additional plaintiffs including thousands whose children had participated in GLVC programs.
In response, Butler’s attorneys attempted to shut down the class action attempt using a number of arguments.
Among these, Butler’s lawyers asserted Mullen’s signature on a liability waiver at the time of her daughter’s registration in a volleyball program should thwart her ability to sue now.
They further argued a proper class could not be certified because many parents of GLVC players have chosen to believe the Butlers’ denial of the sexual abuse allegations, and defend them, meaning they could not be numbered among the class members. Butler’s lawyers also asserted the class would be far too large and unmanageable, as many of the participants had no contact at all with a team, camp or other program through GLVC which was under Butler’s supervision.
Kennelly, however, said none of those claims should prevent the class action from proceeding.
He said the waiver signed by Mullen was merely a document to limit the liability of the GLVC should her daughter suffer a physical injury participating in actual volleyball activities.
The judge also found “unavailing” Butler’s assertions concerning the number of parents who still support him.
“… The communications that do refer to those allegations suggest that the individuals who continue to contract with GLV and express support for the Butlers credit their denials of wrongdoing – in other words, they believe the defendant’s allegedly fraudulent, ongoing misrepresentations and omissions,” Judge Kennelly wrote.
“By contrast, there is no evidence indicating that these individuals would continue to patronize GLV and the support the Butlers (sic) if they were to cease the alleged fraud.”
Further, the judge said, since the Butlers stand accused of concealing the alleged abuse and misleading parents about the situation, the entire class can be considered to have suffered from relying on the Butlers’ assertions.
“The inference of reliance is straightforward: no reasonable parent would knowingly send their child into the care of an adult who admitted to a pattern of rape and sexual abuse against minors,” Kennelly wrote.
However, the judge agreed the class definition sought by plaintiffs is too broad, conceding some GLVC programs are too far removed from Butler’s direct supervision to make claims of fraud and concealment of the abuse allegations “less salient” for some players than others.
The judge chose to narrow the class definition to only include those “who paid for volleyball instruction through the Sports Performance program that Rick Butler supervised.”
The judge appointed attorneys Jay Edelson, Eve-Lynn J. Rapp, Christopher L. Dore, Alfred K. Murray II and Sydney Janzen, of the Edelson firm, to serve as class counsel.
The plaintiffs have requested more than $5 million in damages.
GLVC and the Butlers are represented in the action by attorney Danielle D’Ambrose, of Chicago.