Spearheaded by a concerned suburban Chicago parent, a little-known Illinois law called "The Physical Fitness Service Act" is being used to frame a class-action lawsuit against two Illinois volleyball coaches.
The ground-breaking suit claims Rick and Cheryl Butler did not keep a "safe environment" for youth volleyball players by not disclosing to parents Rick Butlers' history of allegedly sexually abusing teenage girls he was coaching.
This is the first class-action case in the country to recognize that an alleged abuser can be sued for fraud, said Chicago attorney Jay Edelson of Edelson PC.
"The club, we allege, knew there was a sexual predator who was coaching kids, that they had actual knowledge of it, and once they had actual knowledge, they had a duty to either fire him or, if they were going to employ him, to tell all their members. Of course, they couldn’t do that because nobody would go to their club," Edelson said.
The civil lawsuit claims that Sports Performance Volleyball Club committed "fraud and deception" by violating a core pledge that sports coaches make with parents to keep kids safe.
"It’s fairly commonsensical that parents wouldn’t send their kid to be coached by someone if they are unsafe in this way," Edelson added.
The Butlers run Great Lakes Volleyball whose website boasts nearly 5,000 players in their camps, clinics, academy and club teams across Illinois.
The Facebook page of Butler’s sport performance club has 38,000 followers, but nowhere does it mention the Lifetime Membership ban of Coach Rick Butler in 2018 by USA Volleyball or bans from Amateur Athletic Union and the Junior Volleyball Association.
Court documents say Butler has admitted to USA Volleyball of having sexual relationships with former players but denies the women were underage. Butler has never been criminally charged.
"This is an endemic problem across the country when it comes to youth sports, and we think that organizations, private clubs, schools have an affirmative duty to tell the parents if their kids are being placed in an unsafe environment,” Edelson said.
Sarah Powers-Barnhard was one of Rick Butler’s star volleyball players in the early 1980’s. She alleges in court documents that she was Rick Butler’s first sexual abuse victim. “It’s really about showing the seriousness and the truth to our story,” Powers-Barnhard said. “It’s never been about money. It’s been about what’s right. Tell our story. And now, it’s about the present, future athletes.
Julie Bremner, another former volleyball player coached by Butler, alleges in court documents she was raped a few years after Sarah. “It’s a fight that I didn’t choose,” Bremner said.
Both women claim they were in High School when they say the alleged sexual abuse occurred.
None of the six alleged victims are plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit, but they are identified in the plaintiff’s court documents to support the allegations of Rick Butler’s manipulation and sexual exploitation of underage girls.
“It’s been really actually very difficult to know that he is still out there and being around young children. The studies show that sexual predators like himself, they don’t stop, they can’t stop. So it’s always in the back of my mind is he doing it to somebody else?,” added Bremner.
The Butler’s attorney, Danielle D’Ambrose issued a statement to NBC5 Investigates: “ The recent lawsuit against GLV, Rick Butler, and Cheryl Butler was filed by a disgruntled parent and concerns alleged misrepresentations related to GLV’s contracts and business practices. To elaborate, the Plaintiff in this lawsuit is alleging that GLV should be required to disclose nearly 40-year-old allegations in the club’s promotional materials, business contracts and dealings. We obviously do not believe there is any standard or precedent that would require such disclosures, and we are vigorously defending Rick and Cheryl against each and every continuously-evolving, false allegation made against them.”
The civil lawsuit was just given class-action status in January, allowing potentially thousands of families to become involved in the suit if they choose. Edelson says he hopes the lawsuit will have incredible impact on youth sports.
“It’s an astounding thing that somebody, who is accused of this type conduct, and really believe we are going to be able to prove it, is able to not just have a career but remain one of the most prominent coaches in the country,” added Edelson.