A federal judge on Friday ordered Baylor University to turn over information --including interview recordings and documents -- it provided to a law firm it hired amid a sexual assault scandal that rocked the nation's largest Baptist school.
Baylor had sought to block the release of information it provided to the Philadelphia-based law firm Pepper Hamilton, which was hired to investigate how the university handled sexual assault cases. Baylor claimed the information it provided the law firm was protected under attorney-client privilege.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin ordered the materials released to attorneys representing a group of 10 women suing Baylor. He did so because the university had waived its protections under attorney-client privilege when it released a detailed summary of the law firm's investigation and when it quoted text messages and conversations by university personnel about sexual assault reports in court filings.
"'Would it be fair to allow Baylor to protect remaining undisclosed details regarding the Pepper Hamilton investigation when it intentionally, publicly, and selectively released certain details of the investigation, including attorney-client communications? The Court concludes, with respect to materials covered by the attorney-client privilege, that it would not," Pitman said.
Baylor faces federal lawsuits from more than a dozen women who contend school officials ignored or suppressed assault claims and fostered a rape culture within the football program. The lawsuits allege officials mishandled or ignored sex assault allegations for years. The school is also facing several federal civil rights investigations and a state criminal investigation.
Jim Dunnam, one of the attorneys for the women, identified as "Jane Doe," called the judge's ruling "a very big step" in allowing his clients to show that this was not isolated to only the football program.
"Our position all along has been it's been an institutional culture at the top of the university to suppress this type of reporting of claims to basically deny that it occurs on campus," Dunnam said.
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Pitman did deny a request by the women's attorneys to force Baylor to release any notes, emails and other documents that were prepared by the law firm as part of its investigation and considered work-product that could reveal legal strategy. The university will be required to produce a detailed log of certain work product and to identify witnesses who were interviewed.
"Baylor recognizes this is a complex order, and the university appreciates the court's ruling that attorney work product privileges continue to apply in this case," the university said in a statement. "Baylor continues to express concerns regarding the protection of students' personal records, specifically the desire of many students - who are unrelated to this case - that their identities remain anonymous and their information confidential."
Baylor has said in court filings that the law firm had reviewed some 26.5 terabytes of information from 52 laptops and 62 mobile devices.
It is unclear if all of this information will be turned over to the women's attorneys or when they will be given access to it.
Due to previous protective orders issued by Pitman regarding the protection of sensitive information, it's unclear if any of this information will ultimately be made public, said Chad Dunn, another of the attorneys for the women. The trial in their case has been set for October 2018.
In its report last year, the law firm concluded the football program acted as if it was "above the rules" as coaches and staff had improper contact with complainants, and interfered or impeded school and potentially criminal investigations.
After Pepper Hamilton's report, Baylor fired football coach Art Briles in May 2016 and demoted then-university President Ken Starr, who later resigned.
Briles has insisted he didn't cover up sexual violence by his players or try to obstruct any investigations.