With Deshaun Watson settlement talks off table, the NFL will be forced to render judgement in its investigation

HOUSTON — A moment of clarity arrived for the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson with Thursday’s revelation that four women met with NFL investigators regarding their civil lawsuits against the star quarterback. The league now has testimony from some of Watson’s accusers, and one way or another, it will have to decide what to do with that information. 

It’s a crossroads between Watson’s civil litigation and an NFL investigation that was never guaranteed to materialize given the reality that the Texans star could have reached a group settlement and nondisclosure agreements with the 22 women accusing him of varying degrees of sexual misconduct. Such an event might have prevented any of Watson’s accusers from speaking to the NFL as part of its probe. But with the news of four of the women having spoken with league investigative czar Lisa Friel (or representatives from her office), it creates two realities for Watson. 

First, NFL investigators will mandate that the quarterback meet with them for questioning before some kind of determination in the case; and second, Watson will now lack at least some settlement motivation, given that at least four of his accusers have cooperated with the NFL’s investigation.

What does all of this mean for Watson and his civil litigation? At the the very least it will have ripple effects, depending on how Watson’s defense team absorbs the developments. Among them …

The civil litigation of the 22 women vs. Deshaun Watson 

First and foremost, it doesn’t appear Watson’s civil litigation is going anywhere anytime soon. That’s a small revelation after the opposing attorneys in the disputes — Rusty Hardin representing Watson, and Tony Buzbee representing the 22 women — went completely silent following an April 22 status hearing in the cases. In that hearing, both sides accused the other of destroying digital evidence, leading a judge to place a preservation order and set the stage for litigation to move forward into discovery planning.

After that spark-filled status hearing, neither Buzbee or Hardin made a public statement for nearly three weeks, fueling speculation that the two sides may have gone to the negotiating table in hopes of developing settlement talks. Buzbee and Hardin appeared to blow up any settlement talks in the past 24 hours, when each made competing statements that settlements would not be happening. 

Buzbee made the declaration while lauding the Houston Police Department for its handling of the alleged victims, but also chiding the NFL for meetings with four of his clients that he deemed to be lacking respect. 

When reached by phone Wednesday night Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents 22 women who have filed civil lawsuits against Texans QB Deshaun Watson, confirmed that four of his clients have met with the NFL’s lead investigator, Lisa Friel, and eight to ten of his clients… pic.twitter.com/VgO8lzH2Sg

— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) May 13, 2021

Conversely, Hardin concurred there would be no settlement talks while pointing a finger at Buzbee as being the party that has continually tried to engineer them. Hardin said, via statement: 

In a recent interview, Mr. Buzbee stated that “a settlement is not happening.” We certainly agree that there are currently no settlement negotiations being conducted. While we have never approached Mr. Buzbee about a settlement, he has approached us on numerous occasions in the past about the possibility of a settlement. We have made clear all along that there would be no settlement unless the terms are made public and all participants are allowed to speak in their own defense at all times. We want none of the participants— the plaintiffs or Mr. Watson —muzzled by a settlement agreement. Mr. Buzbee does not feel the same.

I am a little bemused by Mr. Buzbee pronouncing piously that his clients are not going to settle and that they want their cases to play out in court. The fact that this whole thing started with his attempt to extort money and avoid court shows that irony is not dead. I guess it has just been raised to a new level.

Regardless of who wants what, the underlying theme is simple: Both lawyers want the world to know that as of right now, the litigation is going to press forward.

For Buzbee, neither the Houston Police investigation nor the NFL’s probe guarantee his success or failure in trying the civil cases against Watson. But the cooperation of the alleged victims with both (or either) of those investigations potentially impacts whether Watson could be inclined to settle the civil cases. And now that Buzbee has made it clear that a handful of the women in civil litigation have provided interviews with the HPD and the NFL, it will almost certainly weigh into the strategy of Watson’s defense team moving forward.

The Houston Police Department and NFL investigations 

If Buzbee is to be taken at his word in his most recent statements, he appears to have reflected positively on the Houston Police Department’s investigation and negatively on the NFL’s probe. That could be important to Watson’s defense, particularly if Watson’s attorneys didn't know how many accusers had spoken to HPD and NFL investigators.

Buzbee’s statements now provide Watson’s legal camp with two revelations to absorb. First, Buzbee is framing the interaction of the Houston Police Department as not only active and ongoing, but he expressed appreciation for how the investigators of the criminal complaints have handled the proceedings. And second, Buzbee’s criticism of the NFL’s investigative meetings with four accusers is suggestive on its face that he is discouraged by the state of the league’s probe (or at least how investigators are handling Watson’s accusers during their work).

In both respects, Buzbee’s statements could make Watson less inclined to engage in a mass settlement of the cases — especially if his legal camp had prioritized a non-disclosure of information to police or the NFL in any agreement. Regardless of whether Buzbee views the HPD investigation in a positive light and the NFL investigation in a negative light, the overriding takeaway is that the civil accusers have already gone down a road of cooperation in both. And that choice could remove some motivation from Watson to settle if he feels things have gone past the point of no return.

Where does the NFL go from here? 

Noteworthy in all of the latest revelations is the fact the NFL now has information that goes beyond the civil filings against Watson. By Buzbee’s account, the league has the testimony of four women and that could be an important threshold for the NFL when it comes to making a determination about Watson’s future.

If Antonio Brown’s now-settled civil case with former trainer Britney Taylor is used as a road map — not to mention a litany of other assault-related investigations undertaken by the NFL — one of the next steps will be a meeting with Watson to question him on the basis of the information and interviews gathered. While the NFL could wait for the Houston Police Department’s investigation to unfold, the reality is that just like Brown’s dispute with Taylor, the league doesn’t have to wait for litigation or a police investigation to make a determination of its own.

The bottom line revelation: The league has civil suits and first-person interviews. That material, along with a Watson interview, is enough to rise to some kind of determination from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, particularly if past situations serve as a judicial framework under the league’s personal conduct policy. And even if the league is still in an early phase of its work, the first-person interviews and litigation can serve as enough to decide whether or not Watson should be on paid leave via the commissioner’s exempt list.

One way or another, the NFL is now going to have to render some kind of decision with Watson. Either the league will determine there is enough evidence to meet the standard that a violation of the personal conduct policy may have occurred, or the NFL will find that there isn’t enough evidence to do anything. Both of those are forms of judgements — one by taking action, and one by doing nothing at all.

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