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Judge refuses to toss out lawsuit against volleyball coach Rick Butler

Rick Butler watches a scrimmage in 2014. | Stacie Scott/Lincoln Journal Star

A federal judge has rejected attempts by powerhouse youth volleyball coach Rick Butler to have a potentially damaging lawsuit against him quickly tossed out of court.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly on Monday night denied Butler’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which alleges Butler sexually abused six girls who mostly played at his Sports Performance Volleyball club in the 1980s.

The judge told Butler to answer the complaint within three weeks. During a hearing Tuesday morning, he also warned lawyers on both sides of the case about the rhetoric swirling around the highly charged accusations against Butler.

“It really doesn’t justify the level of sniping that is going on between the lawyers on both sides of this case,” Kennelly said.

Kennelly’s eight-page ruling said the woman who filed the lawsuit, Laura Mullen, adequately alleged Butler’s volleyball club falsely advertised itself as a safe environment featuring extremely qualified coaches.

However, the law required Kennelly, at this stage, to view the evidence in the light most favorable to Mullen. Kennelly wrote that, “the fact that Sports Performance has been successful ultimately may weigh in defendants’ favor.”

The proposed class-action lawsuit, filed in February, alleges Butler “used his position of power to sexually abuse no fewer than six underage teenage girls” and that his wife, Cheryl Butler, concealed the abuse by pressuring and threatening victims.

Mullen’s daughters played at the Butlers’ Aurora club. However, Mullen has insisted she wouldn’t have paid the fees there had she known about the allegations against Butler.

Butler attorney Danielle D’Ambrose has argued that Mullen’s lawsuit is full of “inexcusably false accusations” and should be thrown out. She said it improperly tries to force Butler to “admit to a crime he has fervently denied for nearly three decades.”

The litigation quickly turned contentious. Threats of counter-suits emerged. And in a set of emails revealed by the lawsuit, Cheryl Butler claimed the couple had “proof” that would eventually undermine the complaint and lead to its dismissal.

Late last month, D’Ambrose pointed to a 2015 email to Butler from Mullen’s daughter that appears to refer to an ESPN report about the sexual abuse allegations against Butler.

“It is unfortunate to hear about all of the bad press, but I support you and Cheryl,” Mullen’s daughter wrote.

Mullen’s attorneys have insisted the email proved nothing. However, they have also been forced to acknowledge a claim they made in the lawsuit — that Mullen’s husband died while her daughter was at a tournament with Butler in China — was inaccurate. Mullen’s husband died during a tournament that followed the China trip, they now say.

So far this year, Butler has been banned by the massive Amateur Athletic Union and the Wisconsin-based Junior Volleyball Association. USA Volleyball also announced a ban in January.

USA Volleyball has also said Butler is banned from attending any event it sanctions, even as a spectator. And Walt Disney World Resorts has said Butler is not welcome on its property. It did so ahead of a national volleyball tournament at the resort.

Butler has been dogged by sexual abuse allegations for decades. He denies them. But Sarah Powers-Barnhard, Julie Romias and Christine Tuzi allege Butler sexually abused them in the 1980s while he was their coach and they were under 18. The Sun-Times first reported the allegation of another accuser, Beth Rose, in the November series “Net Pains.” More allegations surfaced in Mullen’s lawsuit.

Though Butler has said he “never sexually abused any individual,” he has conceded he had sex with Powers-Barnhard, Romias and Tuzi. He said that happened after they were no longer minors and no longer on his team.

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