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Analyzing Kelli Tennant's Sexual Assault Lawsuit Against Kings Coach Luke Walton

What possible litigation could Kings coach Luke Walton be facing after being accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment by former Spectrum SportsNet reporter Kelli Tennant? The Crossover examins the case.

Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton faces a civil lawsuit and a joint league-team investigation into sexual assault and sexual harassment claims brought by former Spectrum SportsNet reporter Kelli Tennant. Last week, Tennant sued the 39-year-old coach in Los Angeles Superior Court. She argues that Walton sexually assaulted her in 2014 and later harassed her while he coached the Lakers. An attorney for Walton categorically denies Tennant’s assertions and dismisses her as “an opportunist, not a victim.”

Meanwhile, the NBA and the Kings have launched a joint investigation. The investigation will attempt to determine if evidence supports or refutes Tennant’s accusations. In the course of that analysis, the league will likely review the extent to which the Kings and Walton’s previous two NBA employers—the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors—knew, or should have known, about any pertinent issues involving Walton and Tennant.


Tennant’s disturbing depiction of what she says occurred

Tennant, 31, is a former USC volleyball player whose broadcasting career has included positions with ESPN, Fox Sports and Spectrum SportsNet, the regional sports network that broadcasts, among other things, Lakers, Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles Sparks games. Tennant says that she has known Walton and Walton’s wife, Bre Ladd Walton, for years. Tennant and Ladd Walton are both accomplished volleyball players.

About five years ago, Tennant asked Walton to write the foreword to her book, The Transition: Every Athlete's Guide to Life After Sports. Tennant thought Walton would be an appropriate writer because she considered him a “mentor and friend.” She also viewed Walton’s background as thematically relevant to her book. Walton had transitioned into a coaching career after playing 10 seasons in the NBA. Walton agreed and wrote the foreword. The book was published in July 2014.

Later in 2014, while Walton was an assistant coach for the Warriors, Tennant says that she and Walton agreed to meet. The planned meeting occurred in Los Angeles when the Warriors played the Lakers. As depicted by Tennant, she contacted Walton and told him that she’d like to drop off a copy of The Transition as a token of her gratitude. Tennant asserts that Walton agreed to meet. She says he directed her to meet him at the Casa Del Mar Hotel in Santa Monica. Walton explained that the Warriors were staying at that hotel. Walton, Tennant recalls, also told her he would meet her in the downstairs lobby.

When Tennant arrived in her car, she says that she noticed Walton standing outside of the hotel’s entrance. Tennant recalls driving up to Walton and handing him a copy of her book. She then intended to leave and began to tell Walton goodbye. Walton, however, did not want her to go. As Tennant portrays the interaction, Walton directly asked her to park her car so that they could then catch up in the hotel. Tennant then parked her car, approached Walton and the two then entered the hotel together.

Tennant said she was stunned when Walton didn’t stop to talk with her in the lobby but instead kept walking toward the elevators. According to Tennant, she asked Walton what he was doing. He allegedly replied that he couldn’t really talk in the lobby because Warriors players might be there. It’s unclear why players being in the lobby would have interfered with Walton and Tennant speaking in that location.

Walton, as retold by Tennant, assured her not to worry. She says he told her, “It’s fine. Come on up. It’s me.” Tennant explains that, given that Walton was married with kids and given that he had been a longtime mentor and friend, she did not fear that Walton would do anything inappropriate, let alone violent.

Tennant then went with Walton to his hotel room. After they entered the room, Tenant remembers engaging in small talk with Walton about her book, his career and their families. She then recalls a dramatic change in their interaction. “Suddenly and out-of-nowhere,” Tennant’s complaint asserts, the 6’8", 235-pound Walton pinned her on the bed so that his hips and legs prevented her from moving. Walton, Tennant maintains, then forcibly kissed her on the face, neck and chest and groped her breasts and groin area. Tennant says she repeatedly yelled at Walton to “stop it” but that Walton alternatively ignored and laughed at her pleas. She also tried unsuccessfully to escape Walton’s hold. Walton, Tennant insists, reacted by only intensifying the assault and rubbing his erection on her leg.

Walton eventually released Tennant, who got off the bed. But Tennant says Walton then jumped off the bed as well. He grabbed her again and kissed her against her will before releasing her for a second time. As she fled the hotel room, Tennant recalls Walton disturbingly telling her “good to see you again.”

Tennant did not notify law enforcement of the incident but recalls telling persons close to her about it. Thereafter Tennant would see Walton a number of times in professional contexts. In April 2016, the Lakers hired Walton as head coach. When Walton would greet Tennant—who hosted live studio shows for Lakers games and also contributed to Lakers’ pre- and post-game coverage—she says he would “try to impose himself” on her “with a big hug or kiss.” Walton did so, Tennant contends, to “deliver a clear message” that he could “dominate and control” her and that “she was his to put his hands on whenever he wanted.”

Tennant recalls one specific interaction with Walton on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. During a charity event where both Walton and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss would be honored, Tennant was tasked with greeting and interacting with Walton. When Walton arrived, he allegedly “looked [her] up and down very slowly and provocatively, uttered vulgar guttural sounds at her in a lewd manner and remarked ‘'re killing me in that dress!’” Tennant also claims that Walton “forced an aggressive hug on her, forced kisses on her cheek and rubbed his body against hers.”

Tennant detailed these allegations both in a press conference held last week in Los Angeles and in her court complaint, which is authored by her attorneys, Garo Mardirossian and David deRubertis.

Tennant sues Walton—and others—on several grounds

Tennant has sued not only Walton but also a group of unnamed defendants. These defendants are listed as “John Does.” Tennant’s attorneys say they will seek to amend her complaint and identify these other defendants once their names and job responsibilities are ascertained.

So who are they?

Most likely, Tennant intends to name Walton’s employers and supervisors during the time in which he allegedly caused her harm. Walton is accused of assaulting Tennant while he was an assistant coach on the Warriors. It’s possible that Tennant’s complaint will be amended to include the Warriors, coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers as co-defendants. Tennant would argue that the team and Walton’s supervisors are vicariously liable for his harmful acts. Stated differently, Tennant would claim that the Warriors were negligent in how they hired and supervised Walton, particularly while he was acting within the scope of his employment. The fact that the alleged assault occurred while Walton was staying in a hotel secured by the Warriors could suggest his activities within the hotel were ultimately subject to team supervision.

The Lakers and various teams executives who oversaw Walton—including former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka and former general manager Mitch Kupchak—could also become potential defendants. Tennant insists that Walton repeatedly harassed her after he took over as Lakers coach. The Lakers owning 50% of Spectrum SportsNet could also become relevant if Tennant argues that the team’s involvement with her employer contributed to a hostile environment. Lastly, Tennant could attempt to add the NBA as a defendant. Tennant might argue that the league has not adequately deterred coaches from engaging in inappropriate conduct. One difficulty with Tennant suing the NBA is that Walton was not employed by the NBA. He was employed by separately-owned NBA franchises.

By not naming the defendants at this time, Tennant’s attorneys might hope that they attempt to reach financial settlements with her before they are added to the litigation.

Tennant’s complaint contends six claims under California law: sexual assault; sexual battery; gender violence; violation of the Ralph Act (a California civil rights law that ensures persons are free of violence or threats based on their gender); assault and battery. Collectively these claims provide for monetary damages when a defendant makes unwanted sexual contact with another and when a defendant threatens violence on the basis of gender. Tennant draws attention to the alleged 2014 incident in the hotel and the alleged 2017 incident at the Lakers charity event. Tennant insists she has suffered injuries, mental suffering, emotional distress and economic/career harm as a result of Walton’s alleged acts.

Walton’s attorney fires back

In a statement, Walton attorney Mark Baute describes Tennant’s claims as “outrageous” and suffering from a “complete lack of evidence.” Baute insists that Tennant and her attorneys are attempting to “create a public circus” in order to damage Walton’s reputation and pressure him into paying off Tennant and her attorneys. Baute contends that he and Walton “will not try this case in the media or pay them a dime.”

If Baute’s name sounds familiar, it may be because he successfully represented Derrick Rose against accusations that Rose had committed sexual assault.


Not a criminal matter

Tennant’s depiction of facts is her version of events. Walton’s attorney, of course, insists that this depiction is completely false and represents extortion-by-lawsuit.

However, if we assume for a moment that Tenant’s claims are accurate, then Walton would likely have committed several crimes. They include sexual battery, which makes it a crime to non-consensually touch the intimate part of another person for purposes of sexual gratification, and false imprisonment, which in certain situations makes it a crime to restrain and detain another person without their consent.

Walton, however, will almost certainly not face criminal charges.

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First, the statutes of limitation for plausible criminal charges have likely expired. In California, prosecutors generally must charge a defendant within three years of a crime occurring when the accompanying felony charges are punishable by fewer than eight years of prison. Crimes such as sexual battery and false imprisonment are punishable by fewer than eight years. The same is true of attempted rape and other offenses that might be conceivable.

Even if the statutes of limitation for relevant crimes haven’t yet expired, law enforcement would face logistical difficulties in investigating an alleged sexual incident that occurred in a hotel room five years ago. Walton would not be charged unless prosecutors believed they would be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a crime occurred.

It’s unclear at this time whether Tennant has corroborating evidence. Her complaint says that she confided in “certain people.” This indicates there may be witnesses with whom Tennant spoke after the alleged incident. It’s also possible that Tennant sent texts and emails after the alleged incident that could help her to establish her narrative. Likewise, Walton may have communicated with others in-person, by phone or online about Tennant in ways that support or refute the claims.

Still, given the passage of time, it’s unlikely sufficient evidence exists to justify charges. Whether any texts and emails ever existed is unclear, just as it’s unknown if any remain in existence in 2019.

Casa Del Mar Hotel surveillance video from 2014 might be helpful, particularly if it reveals activity from the hotel hallway near Walton’s room on the day in question. However, hotels usually only preserve surveillance video for a period of weeks or months. It is unlikely that any surveillance video still exists. Similarly, since the alleged incident occurred in a bedroom, there no other eyewitnesses. It’s also unclear if hotel staff would even remember Walton being at the hotel, let alone him walking alongside Tennant.

A concerning matter for the NBA

The NBA and Kings, which hired Walton on April 15, will take Tennant’s claims seriously. If Tennant is telling the truth, it would suggest that she was a victim of a hostile environment while reporting on an NBA team and was afraid to report that an NBA coach had assaulted her due to fear of how that disclosure would impact her career.

With that in mind, Tennant devotes part of her complaint to criticizing the treatment of women in the NBA. She writes, “Like women in so many other industries, from Hollywood to politics, women connected to the NBA have long had to suffer in silence through the indignities of gender abuse and sexual exploitation at the hands of famous, wealthy and powerful men. Aided by their enormous fame, money and power, and motivated by a culture that tolerates misogynistic gender-bias, too many men in professional basketball think their fame, wealth and power entitles and gives them a license to sexually exploit and degrade women whenever they want.

Tennant’s complaint doesn’t mention the Dallas Mavericks. However, Tennant has filed her lawsuit seven months after the NBA announced findings from an investigation into the Mavericks for sexual harassment and related workplace misconduct.

The NBA has undertaken several steps to address concerns about gender equality and the treatment of women. For instance, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has urged teams to develop workplace policies that would lead to more respectful and appropriate conduct. Recommended policies include improved reporting procedures for victims of misconduct and anonymous workplace culture surveys.

Silver also has aggressively pushed for increased opportunities for women to obtain high-ranking positions with teams. In recent years, several women have been hired as assistant coaches, including Nancy Lieberman (formerly with the Kings), Natalie Nakase (Los Angeles Clippers) and Becky Hammon (San Antonio Spurs). In addition, the league’s statement on diversity and inclusion specifies that basketball is “is a sport that transcends culture, race, language, gender and socio-economic levels.” Further, the league has partnered with the National Basketball Players’ Association to develop policies that combat violence against women—including the domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy found in Exhibit F of the collective bargaining agreement.


NBA, Kings partner to investigate the claims: what to expect

The NBA and the Kings have launched a joint investigation into the claims against Walton. The NBA’s efforts will be led by Elizabeth Maringer, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Maringer serves as the league’s senior vice president and assistant general counsel for integrity and investigations. For their part, the Kings have retained Sue Ann Van Dermyden and Jennifer Doughty to lead their portion of the probe. Both are seasoned attorneys with deep expertise in employment law and workplace investigations. These attorneys are eminently qualified and will likely leave no stone unturned.

The investigation could last weeks or months and involve interviews with a wide range of potential witnesses.

As a starting point, investigators will demand to speak with Walton. They will want him to explain everything about his association with Tennant—including how the association began, whether the association was more like a friendship or a mentorship and whether he and Tennant ever engaged in sexual relations or romantic activities.

Walton will need to cooperate with the investigation or he could lose his job and face NBA discipline. Although Walton’s employment contract with the Kings is not publicly available, it likely contains language that requires him to cooperate with team investigations. Likewise, several provisions in the league constitution are on point One in Article 35A, which empowers Silver to suspend a coach for an indefinite period and fine him or her up to $1 million for any conduct the commissioner detrimental to the NBA.

Walton has no applicable Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the context of a private workplace investigation. As noted above, it is extremely unlikely that Walton will face criminal charges over Tennant’s allegations. But even if such charges were possible, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination would not apply in a private workplace setting.

If Walton declines to answer questions from the NBA or the Kings, he would face the possibility of being fired for cause and being suspended indefinitely. On the other hand, if Walton cooperates and reveals information that might be damaging to him in Tennant’s civil lawsuit, Tennant’s attorneys could seek to subpoena the NBA and Kings’ investigative records. There is some degree of risk either way.

The NBA and Kings might also demand that Walton turn over any relevant texts, emails and other documents that could shed light on his interactions with Tennant. To that point, the NBA could request electronic information directly from the Warriors and Kings. If those teams’ servers still contain copies of emails from 2014 to 2017, the NBA could want to review Walton’s work emails. Similarly, if Walton used a phone provided by the team, the league could demand phone call records and text messages.

The NBA might also ask to speak with Warriors and Lakers employees—including team executives and players—to gauge if they recall how Walton interacted with Tennant. Obviously, several years have passed, so it’s possible that no reliable recollections remain. But if Walton spoke with coaches and players about Tennant, particularly since he wrote the foreword of her book, it stands to reason there may be witnesses who remember what he shared.

Interviews with Warriors and Lakers employees might also involve questions about how Walton generally interacts with women. Does Walton frequently hug and/or kiss women he greets instead of shaking their hands, or did he treat Tennant differently and in a more sexualized way?

The investigation will also focus on the two days that received the most attention in Tennant’s complaint: the day in 2014 she says Walton sexually assaulted her and the day in 2017 when he “looked her up and down”, made inappropriate remarks and kissed her and rubbed himself against her body. Investigators will want to know if Walton acted unusually on the day in 2014, particularly after the time when he would have seen Tennant in his hotel room. Further, given that the Lakers’ charity event involved a number of people, it’s possible that eyewitnesses remember how Walton greeted Tennant—especially if that greeting was as sexually-laden as Tennant recalls.

Investigators might also seek to speak with Tennant. The request would not necessarily be straightforward, since Tennant is poised to add NBA teams and team executives to her lawsuit. Any conversation between investigators and Tennant would need to be conducted with that dynamic in mind. It could restrict how the conversation takes place and the extent of information shared by Tennant and investigators.

A strange position for the Kings

The Kings are in an awkward place with respect to the allegations. The team has only employed Walton for a couple of weeks. Kings officials really don’t know him, especially given that Walton’s previous ties to NBA teams as a player and coach—and as the son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton—did not overlap with the Kings. One exception is that Kings general manager Vlade Divac played with Walton on the Lakers, though that was for one just season back in 2004-05.

One critical question that could be posed of the Kings is whether they conducted adequate due diligence in their decision to hire Walton. Presumably, in looking into Walton’s background, the team identified no concerns related to Walton’s treatment of women. The Kings, however, moved with great haste to hire Walton. Employers often take two weeks to hire a person due to requisite background checks. That is particularly true for high-ranked positions. Here, the Lakers severed ties with Walton on April 12 and the Kings announced his hire just three days later, on April 15. To be sure, NBA teams need to move quickly for competitive reasons, but in this case it’s possible the Kings moved too fast.Then again, there is no indication that the Warriors or Lakers knew of Tennant’s allegations or that any type of background check by the Kings would have revealed them.

On a more positive note for the Kings, the team’s lack of track record with Walton would presumably make it easier to fire him should the investigation identify he engaged in inappropriate conduct. But since the investigation could take weeks or months, Walton could be fairly well established with the Kings by that point.

The Crossover will keep you updated on major developments in the Walton litigation and investigation.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.