Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson will learn the identities of 13 of the 22 massage therapists who have sued him for assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to reporting from ESPN’s Sarah Barshop. Harris County District Court Judges Rabeea Collier and Dedra Davis ruled on Friday that certain plaintiffs must be identified in order for Watson to receive a fair opportunity to defend himself. A 14th plaintiff will also be identified per agreement among the attorneys.
One of Watson’s accusers, Ashley Solis, came forward earlier this week in a press conference. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Tony Buzbee, says Solis has since received death threats. Lauren Baxley is another of the accusers who has self-identified through Buzbee.
Watson and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, categorically deny the accusations. The two portray the allegations as attempts to defame and extort Watson.
Under Texas law, and the laws of other states, presiding judges possess wide discretion on whether a lawsuit can proceed with the plaintiff’s identity shielded under the pseudonym “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” The shielding of a plaintiff’s identity is designed to reduce the risk of retribution to that plaintiff, a plausible concern in litigation where the accused is a local and famous NFL player. However, judges normally disfavor anonymous lawsuits since they make it more difficult for a defendant and their attorney to formulate an effective defense—including with respect to interviewing potential witnesses and obtaining relevant evidence (such as emails, texts and social media messages). A trial judge’s denial of a defendant’s motion to reveal an accuser’s name can become grounds for an appeal should the defendant be found liable.
It remains to be seen if revealing the names of some of Watson’s accusers alters the calculus of the legal controversy. If all or some of these accusers do not wish to be identified, perhaps out of concern for their safety or for professional reasons, they could petition for their complaints to be dropped. It is also possible these accusers could seek to settle their claims with Watson out-of-court—and, if one accuser settles, it’s possible others would do the same, especially since they share the same attorney. Alternatively, the accusers could proceed in their litigations, in which case Watson would remain in the same basic predicament.
While Watson’s civil litigation plays out, he remains the subject of a Houston Police Department investigation into whether he could be charged with a crime, such as sexual assault (a felony) or a misdemeanor such as indecent exposure, harassment or offensive sexual contact. No charge would be brought without probable cause.
The NFL has launched its own investigation. While the league lacks subpoena powers and can’t compel witnesses to testify or share evidence, private investigators can still obtain information, and the league can also rely on findings made through the multiple legal processes (civil and criminal). Watson and his attorneys no doubt appreciate that the longer the legal process plays out, the more likely the NFL will gain access to damaging evidence and testimony that the league—and the Texans—could then use against Watson.