Judge sanctions volleyball coach but tosses much of lawsuit against him

Rick Butler, Cheryl Butler and their club must each pay $5,000 for ‘campaign to interfere.’

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Volleyball coach Rick Butler 

Volleyball coach Rick Butler

Stacie Scott/Lincoln Journal Star

A federal judge in a mixed-bag ruling Friday tossed much of a class-action lawsuit that leveled significant allegations against a suburban volleyball coach who has been banned from multiple organizations over claims of sexual abuse.

However, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly gave the lawyers who filed the lawsuit a chance to keep it alive. And he leveled rare sanctions against volleyball coach Rick Butler, his wife Cheryl Butler, their Aurora-based Sports Performance Volleyball Club, and attorney Danielle D’Ambrose.

It all comes more than two years after Laura Mullen filed the lawsuit, which argued that Butler tricked parents and youth athletes into joining his club by hiding the allegations in his past. Mullen’s daughters played at the Butlers’ club, and she has insisted she wouldn’t have paid fees there had she known about the allegations against Rick Butler.

In a 26-page summary judgment opinion Friday, Kennelly tossed three claims by Mullen in their entirety. He also said Mullen could not proceed on three others, but he gave lawyers five weeks to find someone to take her place in the case.

“We are very pleased with the ruling today granting summary judgment in favor of Rick Butler, Cheryl Butler, and GLV, Inc.,” D’Ambrose wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“From the inception of this case, Laura Mullen made claims which were not based in fact or in law and, obviously, Judge Kennelly saw through the case that was presented by Mullen. This ruling was a step towards vindication for my clients, and we look forward to taking additional action pursuing justice for Rick Butler, Cheryl Butler, and GLV, Inc.

“As for the motion for sanctions, we respectfully disagree with the decision, and we are evaluating our options in response to the decision.”

Mullen’s attorney, Jay Edelson, said his team was analyzing the rulings.

Meanwhile, in a separate 20-page ruling, Kennelly leveled sanctions over improper communication between the Butlers and individuals who had been eligible to join the lawsuit. The judge said the Butlers and their club “conducted a campaign to interfere with the processes of the court,” and he said D’Ambrose made a false statement to him that, to some extent, prejudiced the class.

“I respectfully disagree with the court’s interpretation that I misrepresented facts,” D’Ambrose wrote in her email to the Sun-Times. She called it “an unfortunate mistake” that involved her not seeing an email forwarded to her as part of a series of other emails.

The judge’s ruling means the Butlers and their club must each pay $5,000 by March 27, as well as certain legal fees. Kennelly also ordered D’Ambrose to double her professional responsibility credit hours in the next legal education cycle.

In tossing portions of the lawsuit, Kennelly called “circular” an argument that the Butlers sought to hide previous findings of sexual abuse against Rick Butler. The judge said it meant the Butlers, in their denials, “created a duty to admit their truth.” And he pointed to news reports that had previously been published about Rick Butler.

“Given the amount of publicly available information about Rick’s history of abuse … no reasonable juror could find that class members justifiably relied on the (Butlers’) alleged concealment of information on this subject,” Kennelly wrote.

Sexual abuse allegations have followed Rick Butler 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 Chicago Sun-Times first reported the allegation of another accuser, Beth Rose, in the November 2017 series “Net Pains.” Mullen’s February 2018 lawsuit leveled even more allegations against Butler.

Bans against Butler were implemented in 2018 by the massive Amateur Athletic Union, USA Volleyball and the Junior Volleyball Association.

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