What to Know About the Lawsuits Against Deshaun Watson

Quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended Monday for six games for violating the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy and was not fined, concluding the league’s 15-month investigation into sexual misconduct claims made against him by more than two dozen women.

Watson denied those claims and settled 23 of the 24 civil lawsuits accusing him of coercive and lewd sexual behavior during massage appointments, with two that alleged sexual assault. Grand juries in two Texas counties declined to charge him criminally.

The ruling was issued by Sue L. Robinson, the retired federal judge jointly appointed by the N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association to oversee player discipline. The league and the players’ union have three business days to submit a written appeal, which would be handled by Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person of his choosing. If an appeal is submitted, it is possible that Goodell or his designee could extend Watson’s suspension.

It was the first player disciplinary decision to be handled by the arbitration process established by the 2020 collective bargaining agreement and it bridged a wide gap between the penalty either side had pushed for in the case. The N.F.L. had recommended that Watson be suspended indefinitely and that he have to wait at least a full season to apply for reinstatement, while the union and Watson’s representatives had argued for a lesser penalty.

On Sunday, before Robinson’s ruling, the players’ union issued a statement saying it would not appeal and called on the N.F.L. to also abide by her decision.

Deshaun Watson, 26, is a star quarterback, one of the best in the N.F.L. at his position.

In September 2020, he signed a four-year contract extension worth nearly $111 million guaranteed, tying him to the Houston Texans through 2025. But Watson, disenchanted by the team’s poor personnel moves and failure to uphold a pledge to include him in the search process for a new coach and general manager, requested a trade. The Texans said they had no intention of trading him, creating an impasse. Though still a member of the Texans, he ended up not playing at all in the 2021 season.

This March, Watson was traded to the Cleveland Browns for three first-round draft picks and two additional picks. Watson will receive $230 million over five years, the most guaranteed money in league history.

His acquisition divided Browns fans, some of whom welcomed the arrival of a star player, others who expressed concern about the allegations against him. Many simply felt torn.

Watson has been a leading voice among Black players who have protested racial injustice and police brutality. During the 2020 off-season, he took part in a player-led video that urged the league to support protests by players, and after the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, Watson marched with his family — Floyd grew up in Houston — in a downtown protest.

Twenty-four women accused Watson of assault in civil lawsuits filed in Harris County, Texas. The lawyer representing them, Tony Buzbee, said the women had largely echoed one another’s claims of sexual misconduct and coercive behavior against Watson.

Watson has reached settlements with all but one of the 24 women who filed civil lawsuits against him. Twenty suits were settled in June, and shortly before Robinson issued her ruling, Watson reached agreements with three more women, including Ashley Solis, a licensed massage therapist who filed the first claim against Watson in March 2021.

Two of the cases included claims of sexual assault: Watson was said in both cases to have pressured women to perform oral sex during massages and was accused in one of also having grabbed a woman’s buttocks and vagina. The civil suits alleged that Watson engaged in a pattern of lewd behavior with women hired to provide personal services, coercing them to touch him in a sexual manner, exposing himself to women he had hired for massages, or moving his body in ways that forced them to touch his penis. The incidents cited in the suits were said to have occurred from March 2020 to March 2021.

Two of Watson’s accusers publicly identified themselves in April 2021, giving statements that described their alleged encounters. Solis, the first of the women to file suit, read from a statement at a news conference held at Buzbee’s office. Another woman, Lauren Baxley, provided a letter she addressed to Watson that was read by one of Buzbee’s associates.

Before the settlements, Watson’s lawyers had filed a motion asking the court to compel all the plaintiffs to reveal their identities, citing the use of pseudonyms in civil suits as a violation of Texas state law. They condemned Buzbee for “conducting discovery by Facebook and trial by press conference” and for “asking the public to act as judge and jury.”

Meredith J. Duncan, who teaches tort law and criminal law at the University of Houston Law Center, defined civil assault as intentionally or knowingly touching someone in a way that a reasonable person would regard as offensive.

“It just so happens in this case, the civil assault involves his genitals,” Duncan said. “But forcing another person to perform a sexual act, that’s a more aggravated form of sexual assault.”

A New York Times investigation published in June revealed that Watson had booked massage appointments with at least 66 different women from fall 2019 through spring 2021, far more than previously known. Some of the additional women, including several who have not sued, said Watson requested sexual acts.

The investigation also shed light on the methods Watson used to assure the women that he could be trusted, including Instagram chats and declarations to Black therapists he engaged that he was trying to “support Black businesses.”

In November 2020, Watson paid $5,000 to a Houston spa owner, which the owner said was for spa equipment. That woman, Dionne Louis, had connected Watson with multiple women for massages.

The Times investigation also revealed that Watson had a nondisclosure agreement, provided to him by the Texans, for the therapists to sign.

Watson reached settlements with 23 of the 24 women who filed sexual misconduct lawsuits against him, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Tony Buzbee said.

In a June statement, Buzbee said that the terms and amounts of the settlements were confidential and that those cases would be dismissed once finalized. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, gave no comment, but did not deny that settlements had been reached.

One of the four women filed a new lawsuit against the Texans in June, alleging that the team “turned a blind eye” to Watson’s behavior toward female massage therapists. The woman said the team enabled Watson by providing him a nondisclosure agreement to give to therapists and by supplying the venue he used for some of his appointments, as The Times reported.

In July, the Texans reached settlements with 30 women who accused Watson of misconduct, and who “have made, or intended to make, claims against the Houston Texans organization,” according to Buzbee. The identities of the six women who reached settlements with the Texans but had not sued Watson are unknown, as are the details of their claims.

“Although our organization did not have any knowledge of Deshaun Watson’s alleged misconduct, we have intentionally chosen to resolve this matter amicably,” the McNair family, owners of the Texans, said in a statement. “This is not an admission of any wrongdoing, but instead a clear stand against any form of sexual assault and misconduct.”

The Houston Police Department began an investigation after a complainant filed a report against Watson. In March, a grand jury in Harris County declined to bring charges against him on any of nine criminal complaints.

“We respect the grand jury’s decision,” said Johna Stallings, division chief of the adult sex crimes and human trafficking unit at the Harris County district attorney’s office. “We will conclude the criminal proceedings in Harris County.”

Two weeks later, another grand jury, this time in Brazoria County, Texas, declined to indict Watson on charges of sexual misconduct during a massage therapy session. It was the last known criminal case against him.

After the Harris County decision, Watson said that what his legal team wanted to do was “have a fair slate of us telling our side of the story, and letting the conclusion come down to what happened today, and that’s what the grand jury decided on.”

He said on Twitter that he had “never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect” and that he had rejected “a baseless six-figure settlement demand” made by Buzbee before the first suit was filed.

Hardin, who represents Watson, issued statements calling the allegations against his client “meritless” and disputed the veracity of all the claims, describing one of the allegations of sexual assault as a blackmail attempt.

In another statement, issued in March last year, Hardin highlighted firsthand testimonials of more than a dozen massage therapists who said they had worked with Watson over the past five years without experiencing any of the behavior described by the plaintiffs in the lawsuits.

Hardin acknowledged that Watson took part in sexual acts with three of the women, but said that they were all consensual and all occurred after the massages were over.

“Never at any time, under any circumstances, did this young man engage in anything that was not mutually desired,” Hardin said in April last year.

Buzbee denied that argument.

“Mr. Watson may now claim he had consent to do what he did to these victims, but let’s be clear — in their minds he didn’t have consent, PERIOD,” his statement said.

A woman who did not sue Watson told The Times that he initiated sex with her during all three of their massage appointments.

Asked in a news conference at Browns minicamp in June if he was open to settling the civil cases, Watson said he wanted to “clear my name and be able to let the facts and the legal procedures continue to play out.” He also said again that he had “never forced” anyone into sexual activity.

Most of the incidents are said to have taken place in Texas, but according to the complaints, two are said to have occurred in Georgia, where Watson is from, and in California and Arizona, during his visits there. All of the lawsuits were filed in Harris County, Texas, because that is where Watson lives and works.

If Robinson’s ruling stands, Watson’s suspension will begin with the Browns’ first regular-season game, on Sept. 11 against the Carolina Panthers, and he would be eligible to return for the Browns’ seventh game, against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 23.

He can continue working out with the Browns during training camp.

The Browns anticipated Watson would be suspended for at least a part of the 2022 season and structured his contract accordingly, loading most of his $46 million compensation for this year into a signing bonus. He will lose only a portion of his approximately $1 million annual base salary.

The league had opened an investigation into Watson’s conduct in March 2021. In a letter addressed to Buzbee, Lisa Friel, a special counsel for investigations at the league, requested the cooperation of the accusers. A league spokesman said the matter was under review in relation to the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy. That policy governs off-field behavior involving players and coaches.

League investigators spent four days interviewing Watson, Hardin said, which is generally one of the final steps in the process. The N.F.L. spokesman Brian McCarthy said the settlements had “no impact on the collectively bargained disciplinary process.”

Hardin has said Watson cooperated with all investigations.

Nike suspended its contract with Watson in April of last year, the day after two of the accusers gave public statements describing their allegations.

“We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and have suspended Deshaun Watson. We will continue to closely monitor the situation,” the company said in a statement.

Many of his other sponsorships, which included ones with Rolex and Texas businesses, were allowed to expire.

Tony Buzbee is a Houston plaintiffs lawyer who has worked on personal injury cases for years but is perhaps best known for his involvement in mass tort and class-action cases, including the litigation after Hurricane Ike and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago. He doesn’t appear to have represented many women in cases involving sexual assault.

A former marine, Buzbee flaunts his outsize personality and wealth on social media. The first two words on the website for Buzbee’s law firm are “Just Win,” and he has a tattoo of a shark on his right forearm.

Buzbee also unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Houston in 2019.

A former Texas state prosecutor who became a defense lawyer, Hardin has represented numerous prominent clients, from star athletes to the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the Enron scandal. He also worked in the independent counsel’s office in the Whitewater investigation during the Clinton administration.

Among the athletes he has defended are the baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, against perjury charges in 2012; the N.F.L. running back Adrian Peterson, who was accused of felony child abuse in 2014; and the N.B.A. guard James Harden, who was accused in 2017 of paying four people to attack and rob Moses Malone Jr., the son of the Hall of Fame N.B.A. player.