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Investigation: Charges for Iowa State Title IX litigation top $416,000

Investigation: Charges for Iowa State Title IX litigation top $416,000 By K. Rambo,, @k_rambo_ Nov 11, 2018 Updated 21 hrs ago Editor’s Note: This is part three of an investigation to track the amount of money charged in recent Title IX cases against Iowa State. Part one was published Feb. 16, 2016, part two was published May 29, 2018. More

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Editor’s Note: This is part three of an investigation to track the amount of money charged in recent Title IX cases against Iowa State. Part one was published Feb. 16, 2016, part two was published May 29, 2018.

More than $400,000 has been spent since 2016 as a result of Title IX lawsuits against Iowa State. Students and taxpayers have helped foot the bill.

Iowa State had four Title IX suits filed against it by two former students and the former Title IX coordinator, since 2016. Iowa State retained services from Husch Blackwell, a law firm operating out of Kansas City, Missouri.

University counsel Michael Norton was a partner at Husch Blackwell for 12 years before starting at Iowa State.

As of Oct. 25, 2018, $416,016.88 has been spent on the four Title IX suits.

The money going to Husch Blackwell is paid out from the general university budget, which in 2016 was composed of 58.9 percent tuition.

The settlements paid to former student Taylor Niesen and former Title IX director Robinette Kelley come from the state litigation fund, paid for by an Iowa General Fund appropriation. The fund was composed of 91.9 percent tax dollars in 2017, according to the Iowa Legislature.

Niesen received $47,500 in May 2018. The firm representing Niesen received $32,500 of the settlement, and she received $15,000. Kelley received $125,000 in August 2018. Kelley received $75,000 of the settlement and the firm representing her received $50,000.

Melissa Maher v. Iowa State Et Al., the only case that has not ended in a settlement, was dismissed by the Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Helen Adams on Feb. 14, 2018. Maher, a former Iowa State Student, and her attorney Andrew Zbaracki have since appealed the dismissal.

The Maher case is now listed as being in the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Zbaracki told the Daily the court has yet to set a date for oral arguments.

While the total paid to Husch Blackwell may be eye-popping in an era of increased tuition and decreased funding to higher education, Norton said the price and service provided by Husch Blackwell has been satisfactory.

Norton told the Iowa State Daily in February 2018 there is not a limit at which Iowa State will no longer contract Husch Blackwell for legal services.

Norton provided the Daily with a statement through John McCarroll, executive director of public relations at Iowa State.

“When sued, the University has a legal obligation to respond and to present a defense,” Norton said. “Even more importantly, the University defends itself in litigation to protect the assets of the University, which are public assets.”

Norton explained the costs of representation are due to hiring outside representation. In recent Title IX cases, Iowa State has hired Husch Blackwell, Norton’s former firm.

“In complex cases, as in the case of Title IX litigation, where the Attorney General’s office requires additional substantive support or where a conflict exists, such as in the Kelley state litigation, outside litigation counsel must be hired,” Norton said. “There is no other alternative. In the Title IX cases, the University engaged nationally recognized experts in Title IX issues who have represented institutions of higher education across the county in complex litigation.”

The hourly rate of $305 Iowa State is paying Husch Blackwell is “extremely reasonable,” Norton said.

“Moreover, the University has received excellent value for the amount spent,” Norton said. “The partnership between the Office of University Counsel, the Attorney General’s Office, and [Husch Blackwell] has resulted in the favorable resolution (through judicial opinion or settlement) of all pending Title IX litigation.

“The University currently has no active Title IX litigation cases.”

Norton criticized the Daily’s reporting of the total spent. The Daily has included settlements paid to plaintiffs suing the university in reporting.

“Reporting that the ‘total spent’ is $416,000 is misleading,” Norton said. “The University has spent roughly $244,000 in legal fees and expenses. (This is approximately $40,000 more than the amount [the Daily] reported in a similar story earlier this year.) The remaining amount is settlement payments. The University did not pay these settlements. Rather, these payments were made from the state litigation fund, and the State Appeals Board approved the specific settlement payments.”

Although Norton claims the Daily’s reporting is misleading, in the story he is referencing, published May 29, 2018, the Daily accurately reported on where the settlement funds came from. The May 29 story contained the following excerpt as the first two paragraphs in the story:

“Iowa State has been charged $205,492.17 by Husch Blackwell to defend the university in three Title IX related lawsuits, a state discrimination lawsuit and to provide general advising in Title IX litigation.

An additional $47,500 was spent from the state litigation fund approved by the state board of appeals to settle the Taylor Niesen vs. Iowa State case.”

Note: Emily Berch contributed reporting about the state of the Maher appeal in this article.