IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa president Sally Mason was well within her rights to fire the school's longtime dean of students for mishandling a high-profile 2007 sexual assault case involving football players, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The court rejected claims by Phillip Jones that he was wrongly terminated and defamed by Mason and a law firm that criticized his response to the assault. Mason had a legitimate reason to fire Jones: She lost confidence in him after the firm's investigation found he didn't do enough to protect the rights and safety of a freshman athlete who was assaulted in a dorm room by two football players, Justice Bruce Zager wrote.
The 7-0 ruling caps a dark chapter that has dogged Mason from the first weeks of her presidency. It appears to end five years of litigation stemming from Mason firing Jones and general counsel Marc Mills, who declined to appeal after his similar wrongful termination lawsuit was dismissed in February.
Jones' attorney, David Dutton, said that key facts were left out of the opinion that showed Jones, after four decades with the university, was forced to "take the fall for the decisions made by the president."
"Phil was thrown under the bus," he said.
Jones and Mills were fired after the university was criticized for its handling of the assault by football players Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson. Prosecutors said the two took turns having sex with her while she was passed out after a night of partying. While they claimed the sex was consensual, both transferred and were eventually convicted of assault.
Iowa's response came under scrutiny after the student's mother alleged university officials were insensitive and tried to cover up the assault. The Board of Regents hired the Stolar Group, a St. Louis law firm, to investigate. It found no evidence of a cover-up, but said the athletics department tried to handle it informally according to the victim's initial wishes. Upset with the response, the victim later went to police.
Stolar's report criticized Jones for telling the victim's mother he was unaware of the case even after he'd been told about it. It also said Jones failed to use his power to move the victim and the players into separate residence halls.
When the victim reported that football players and other athletes continued to insult and threaten her during the investigation, Jones sent ineffective warning letters and did not follow up, the report said.
Dutton took issue with those conclusions, saying Jones was initially kept out of the case and did what he could when he later got involved.
The report faulted Mills for micromanaging the university's investigation, having poor communication with the victim's father and failing to turn over critical letters from the victim's parents to a Board of Regents investigator.
Jones and Mills disputed the findings and their firings. Jones, who is black and had been dean since 1981, also alleged discrimination. Jones and Mills also contended the Stolar Group's report was defamatory.
Friday's ruling upheld a trial judge's decision to dismiss Jones' case, which included claims against Mason and Stolar.
Jones failed to prove defamation, Zager wrote, because he didn't offer any "evidence suggesting that Stolar acted with reckless disregard for the truth."
Jones' discrimination claim was based on comments Mason made in a deposition in which she said she'd been told by Stolar investigators that Jones was "angry," and "defensive and belligerent." He argued those were stereotypes for black men, but the court found that Mason had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for firing him.
University spokesman Tom Moore said the school is pleased with the ruling.
Dutton said the court failed to mention that athletics officials violated policy by trying to handle the case informally, and that officials initially concealed from the victim that she'd been assaulted by a second football player.
Dutton said that Jones was a remarkable person who "stands tall in the eyes of the people who know him and his body of work."
"He was willing to speak up and showed some courage by confronting the establishment and trying to make his case," he said. "Too bad he wasn't able to present it to a jury."