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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Judge allows sex trafficking claim against NU Cheer to proceed

Daily file photo by Micah Sandy
Northwestern cheerleaders at Northwestern Football’s game against Rutgers at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey on Sept. 3, 2023. U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang allowed a 2021 lawsuit brought by a former NU cheerleader to proceed.

Content warning: this story contains mentions of physical harassment and sexual assault. 

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

Filed in January 2021 by former NU cheerleader Hayden Richardson, the lawsuit alleges 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 tailgates 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.

In June 2021, NU filed a motion to dismiss federal claims including forced labor, sex trafficking and forced-labor trafficking and 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.

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 like 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 the opinion.

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, he 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.

Former cheerleading coach Pamela Bonnevier — one of four former University employees named in the complaint — was fired in Fall 2020 following an Office of Equity investigation into her conduct. NU cheerleaders later told The Daily a culture of racist behavior and abuse was pervasive under Bonnevier’s leadership, while multiple team members alleged safety concerns and a culture of body shaming within the program under current head coach Valerie Ruiz earlier this month.

Former Deputy Director of Athletics Mike Polisky — another defendant in the case — was promoted to athletics director in May 2021. He stepped down from the role only nine days in following widespread protests from the NU community.

Jon Yates, NU’s vice president for global marketing and communications, told Patch the named defendants are no longer employed by NU and that cheerleaders are no longer required to attend Wilson Club events, a policy change implemented in Fall 2021.

NU has until Oct. 10 to respond to the complaint, after which the case will move into discovery.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jacob_wendler

Related Stories: 

NU cheerleaders allege unsafe conditions, unfair expectations

Northwestern faces cheer team, retirement, tuition and data breach lawsuits

Bonnevier files to dismiss allegations of harassment involvement under her leadership of NU cheer team

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