New York attorney Peter Ginsberg has represented several high-profile professional athletes — such as NFL stars Michael Irvin and Jonathan Vilma, as well as PGA Tour player Vijay Singh — in defamation lawsuits. But he has also taken on cases that weren't in the headlines.
A recurring theme to his interest in those cases, Ginsberg said Wednesday, is when he believes strongly that someone has been victimized. That was the biggest reason why Ginsberg agreed to represent Maryland basketball player Dez Wells in his lawsuit against Xavier, Wells' former school.
Ginsberg filed suit Tuesday in Cincinnati's Southern District Court of Ohio on Wells' behalf, claiming that his client's expulsion from the school last summer for violating the school's student conduct code damaged his reputation.
Wells is seeking unspecified damages and an apology from Father Michael J. Graham, the Xavier president who is named in the suit as a co-defendant.
"This lawsuit is an opportunity not only to help Dez reclaim what he's lost, but to send a message that it is important to take seriously the kind of accusations that were made against Dez and it's important to take seriously the rights of the people who are accused," Ginsberg said.
"It's to help Dez relieve the anxiety and correct the damage that was done to him and it's the only thing left to do to make Xavier, and other higher institutions as well, recognize the obligations they have to protect those accused wrongly."
Ginsburg said he had met with university representatives before filing the suit. While he would not divulge the discussions that went on privately, he said, "If you look at Xavier's statement that was released, it's obvious Xavier hasn't realized what it did wrong."
In a statement released Tuesday night, Graham denied that the university had done anything wrong to damage Wells' reputation.
"We have read the complaint and the allegations of wrongdoing are unfounded and cannot be supported," Graham said. "The process used by the Xavier University Conduct Board applies to all of our students and is the standard used in American universities. After members of the Conduct Board reached their decision, the matter was considered and upheld in an appeal."
Graham went on to say that Xavier "never revealed the specific charge against Dez Wells other than to say he was found responsible for a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. The university will vigorously defend the process and the decision."
News of the suit was first reported Tuesday by Yahoo.
Wells was expelled last summer after a university review board made up of students and faculty found him in violation of the conduct code. A female student had alleged that Wells had raped her in her dorm room. According to his lawsuit, Wells said they had consensual sex after playing a "truth or dare" game with others that involved stripping.
Despite local prosecutors not going forward with the case — and the Hamilton County prosecuting attorney Joseph T. Deters coming out strongly in defense of Wells — Xavier kicked him out after his freshman year, which had also included Wells being suspended for his role in a well-publicized brawl with crosstown rival Cincinnati. He transferred to Maryland and the NCAA allowed him to play right away rather than sit out the required one year.
Ginsberg said he was contacted by Wells and his mother last November shortly after he was reinstated by the NCAA. While there were only a couple of incidents at games — specifically at Northwesten and Duke, where students repeatedly chanted, "No means no" as Wells went to the free throw line — the allegations of rape continued to rattle Wells.
It was revealed in the lawsuit that one of Wells' sisters had been a victim of rape and was very sensitive about his relationship with women.
"Dez is a very private person and internalizes an awful lot of this," Ginsberg said.
While Ginsberg admitted that the lawsuit will bring the allegations from Xavier back into the news, he said, "Ultimately the decision and bringing the lawsuit and standing up against Xavier and doing the right thing in this regard took precedence over that sense of privacy. I'm sure [at] times will be some disruption, but hopefully not much."
According to those familiar with the situation, Wells did not tell Maryland officials about his plans to sue Xavier.
Neither Maryland coach Mark Turgeon nor athletic director Kevin Anderson were available for comment Wednesday. Wells is currently home in Raleigh, N.C., but is set to return to school when classes begin.
In a statement released through Ginsberg's office, Wells said, "From the moment this nightmare began, I've told the truth. I am innocent. The folks at Xavier wouldn't listen. Xavier destroyed my reputation. It's time to make this right. Xavier needs to set the record straight."
Ginsberg doesn't believe the lawsuit will affect Wells' relationship with those at Maryland, including Turgeon.
"I think the people at Maryland have already proven that they have a tremendous sense of justice when they took Dez. I hope and I trust that the Maryland representatives will appreciative what Dez did and why he had to do it," Ginsberg said. I don't expect any consequences. Dez is a leader on the team and a leader and role model in the university community as well.
Ginsberg declined to say what financial arrangement he had made with Wells and his family.
"That's really a matter between Dez and me, but one thing that you can be sure of [is that] I wouldn't go anywhere close to putting Dez in a compromising position with the regard to the NCAA," Ginsberg said.
Wells, who is considered an NBA prospect after leading the Terps in scoring (13.1 points per game) last season, could wind up receiving a large settlement. In 1997, Irvin and Dallas Cowboys teammate Erik Williams reportedly received in excess of $1 million each after Ginsberg filed suit on their behalf against a local televison station that reported rape allegations that police later said were false.
The defamation suit Vilma brought against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the aftermath of the Bountygate scandal involving the pay-for-hit scheme of the New Orleans Saints was dismissed earlier this year. A similar suit brought by Singh against the PGA Tour after annoucing that he was being suspended for using a banned substance — and later dropping the suspension — is still in the Florida courts.
Though Wells has gained some attention for playing at Maryland, his case does not draw the instant headlines of others Ginsberg has represented in the past.
"I've been fortunate in my practice to get involved sometimes with cases because it's the right thing to do and not because it's particularly remunerative, not because it involves a high-profile person. It's a matter of doing what's right," Ginsberg said. "I feel very good about the case and I feel honored that Dez would entrust me with it."