More than nine years later, a night in Las Vegas is at the center of a sexual assault case involving one of the world's preeminent athletes.
According to a lawsuit filed in Nevada, Portugal and Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo sexually assaulted a 25-year-old woman in a penthouse at the Palms Casino Resort in June 2009. Kathryn Mayorga, who is now 34, asserts that Ronaldo raped her, with explosive and detailed allegations being published last week in the German publication Der Spiegel.
Mayorga’s lawsuit was filed on Sept. 27 in Clark County District Court. The complaint contains 11 claims, including for battery, abuse of a vulnerable person and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Mayorga also depicts her attorney from 2009 as incompetent and recalls unsympathetic health care professionals and insensitive law enforcement officers exacerbating her trauma and frustrating her pursuit of justice.
As explained below, one of Ronaldo’s key defenses will be that Mayorga contractually relinquished her claims as part of a settlement and non-disclosure agreement. In order for her lawsuit to advance, Mayorga will need to convince the court to invalidate the agreement. Here's an overview of a complicated case that features multiple layers:
The alleged rape and its aftermath
The details of Mayorga’s encounter with Ronaldo are described vividly in Der Spiegel's investigative report. In order to best understand the context of the lawsuit and its claims, it's best to read the report in full. Mayorga’s account is depicted in her complaint as authored by her attorney, Leslie Stovall. Ronaldo has not offered an alternative account, other than dismissing Mayorga’s claims as “fake news” in an Instagram Live video. In addition, one of Ronaldo’s attorneys, Christian Schertz, maintains that Der Spiegel’s disclosure of Mayorga’s claims are “blatantly illegal” under relevant privacy laws.
According to Mayorga, she and a female friend conversed with Ronaldo at the Rain Nightclub in the Palms on the evening of Friday, June 12, 2009. This was the first time that Mayorga had met Ronaldo, who, at the time, was 24 and possessed a reported net worth of about $250 million (his net worth has since grown to about $400 million). Later that evening, Ronaldo invited the two women, along with several others, to his penthouse suite. Mayorga and the others accepted Ronaldo’s invitation and soon thereafter proceeded to the suite. While in the suite, Ronaldo invited everyone to join him in the balcony’s hot tub. Mayorga declined, explaining to Ronaldo that she lacked a bathing suit. Ronaldo then suggested a solution: Mayorga could borrow athletic shorts and a T-shirt from an adjacent room. Mayorga agreed. The two then entered the room. Ronaldo handed Mayorga the clothing items and recommended that she change in the adjoining bathroom.
It was at this point when Mayorga’s experience in Ronaldo’s suite took an illegal turn, according to her claims. Ronaldo allegedly exposed himself and went on to forcefully sodomize her, while, Mayorga insists, she repeatedly yelled "no, no, no" at him.
After allegedly committing anal rape on Mayorga, Ronaldo permitted her to leave the bedroom and told her that he was sorry. Ronaldo, as Mayorga remembers it, assured her that he normally acts like a gentleman, but that in this instance he had failed to live up to that standard.
Hours later, Mayorga was hospitalized for trauma from a sexual assault. Her complaint contends that the medical exam included photographic evidence confirming Mayorga’s sodomization and anal contusions. Mayorga says that a nurse at the hospital curiously discouraged her from implicating Ronaldo to the authorities. If Mayorga did so, the nurse admonished, the public would portray Mayorga as a woman who was attempting to extort money through false accusations.
Weeks later Mayorga was interviewed by a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department police detective who, like the nurse, aggressively discouraged her from publicly implicating Ronaldo. The detective’s warning occurred even after Mayorga had explained that she was certain the assailant was Ronaldo and was certain that she never consented. Mayorga recalls the detective advising her that she would only feel further humiliation by drawing attention to the incident. The public and media, the detective explained, would depict her as a woman who consented to sexual intercourse with Ronaldo and then, because of his wealth and fame, tried to extort him. Mayorga claims that neither the detective nor anyone else from the police department ever contacted her again.
Mayorga’s unhelpful conversations with the nurse and detective only caused her further grief. She explains that she experienced severe psychological trauma due to the assault and the pessimism and indifference of those who she thought would help her. Mayorga says that she felt “terrified and unable to act or advocate for herself.” These feelings gradually turned into post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.
Ineffective counsel and a questionable settlement
On the advice of her family, Mayorga hired an attorney, “Mary S.,” whose real name has not been made public but who is described as inexperienced and out of her depth. Mary S. contacted representatives for Ronaldo in hopes of reaching an out-of-court settlement. In turn, Mayorga contends, Ronaldo hired a team of “personal reputation protection specialists” who would invasively investigate Mayorga and assess if she had a viable case against him. During this time, Ronaldo allegedly admitted to his representatives that he had vaginal intercourse with Mayorga. He also confirmed that she had said “no” and “stop” several times. However, Ronaldo (according to Mayorga) insisted that there was no anal penetration and that Mayorga’s rectal injuries could have only been caused by a sexual encounter with a different man.
Per Mayorga, the specialists informed Ronaldo that she had suffered a severe psychological injury and was deeply terrified about the prospect of retaliation by Ronaldo or persons acting on his behalf. The specialists also had a confidential source at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. This source relayed that supervising officers regarded the incident as more akin to harassment than to assault. The source added that the police department would be willing to close the investigative file if Ronaldo worked out a financial settlement with Mayorga.
As depicted by Mayorga, the specialists took advantage of her weakened emotional state to terrorize her with threats in hopes that she would accept a meager settlement. They told her that if she communicated with the police or with other public officials, they would go public by accusing her of trying to extort Ronaldo for money after having consensual sex with him. Mayorga was warned that her reputation would be forever ruined.
As Mayorga’s attorney, Mary S., negotiated with Ronaldo’s legal team, Mayorga insists that she was mentally incompetent due to her diminished mental capacity. She also notes that she was taking medication that made her “extremely emotional, emotionally unstable, indecisive, irritable, agitated, hyper vigilant and erratic.” Eventually, Mary S. negotiated a settlement worth $375,000 and Mayorga signed it. The agreement required Mayorga to permanently delete any electronic and written evidence, to name every person with whom she had confided about the incident and to never discuss anything that took place in Ronaldo’s suite. If Mayorga violated any of the terms of the agreement, she would be responsible to pay Ronaldo financial damages—a potentially sizable penalty given the likely financial impact of sexual assault allegations on Ronaldo’s image.
The public was not aware of the incident involving Mayorga until 2017. It was then when European newspapers published stories about sexual assault accusations brought by women in different European countries against Ronaldo. That same year Der Spiegel published a story titled “Cristiano Ronaldo's Secret.” The story referred to the incident involving Mayorga, though it kept her identity secret. A year later, Mayorga’s identity became publicly known when her attorney, Stovall, filed a civil lawsuit on Mayorga’s behalf and conducted an interview with Der Spiegel.
The challenge Mayorga faces in attempting to void the 2009 settlement
Mayorga contends that regardless of her agreeing to a settlement, the agreement is not enforceable because she lacked the capacity to sign a contract. She also asserts that the settlement, by forbidding her and also her family and friends from discussing the incident, was designed to obstruct and prevent a criminal investigation. These points are important, because in order for Mayorga’s lawsuit to advance, Mayorga must establish that the settlement should be rendered void. This is no small task. Courts are usually reluctant to void a settlement, especially when the party seeking the voidance was represented by an attorney.
The underlying logic to a disinclination on the part of courts to void settlements is that settlements are binding contracts and should only be terminated in compelling circumstances. If it were easy to void a settlement, then parties would never agree to settle—parties in a litigation would have much less certainty that a settlement would remain enforceable and therefore would be less inclined to settle. Courts also want to respect the intent of parties. Both sides in a dispute must have regarded the settlement as a preferred option to continuing to litigate since if they had felt otherwise, they wouldn’t have signed the settlement. Lastly, the possibility that one party eventually regards a settlement as unfair is not sufficient grounds to void the settlement. Ideally, both sides will feel like they “won.” But it is not uncommon that one party eventually feels dissatisfied. Such dissatisfaction is the nature of any bargain and does not constitute grounds for a court to terminate a settlement.
While settlements are difficult to void, it's not unheard of. Courts, in fact, have recognized several rationales for permitting the voidance of a settlement. In her lawsuit, Mayorga explicitly invokes three of those rationales.
The first rationale Mayorga cites is her lack of capacity to enter into a binding contract. Such an argument rests on the contention that the person who signed an agreement was too mentally deficient at the time of signing to permit a court to construe their signature as valid consent. When reviewing such an argument, courts usually consider whether, under all of the relevant circumstances, the party seeking to be released from the settlement was capable or incapable of understanding the agreement and its terms. Stovall tells Der Spiegel that because of the severe psychological injury Mayorga had suffered, she lacked the requisite competency to understand the settlement Mary S. had negotiated. Therefore, Stovall charges, Mayorga’s signature did not constitute a valid affirmation and thus the settlement should be voidable at Mayorga’s discretion.
In response, expect Ronaldo’s attorneys to insist that while Mayorga may have suffered from depression and emotional distress, she was not so impaired as to be unable to understand the terms of the agreement she signed. If in the weeks and months following the incident Mayorga had returned to work and re-engaged in routine social activities, Ronaldo’s attorneys could more persuasively argue that if Mayorga possessed the capacity to partake in those functions she must have been well-enough to understand the settlement. Also, Ronaldo’s attorneys will emphasize that Mayorga had retained an attorney, Mary S., who had the professional duty to explain to her the terms of the settlement.
The second rationale cited by Mayorga is undue influence and duress. This rationale concerns a situation when one party engaged in decidedly unfair practices to trick the other party into agreeing to terms that were clearly contrary to their best interests. Courts are more willing to recognize this rationale when the party duped into a bad deal was impaired and unusually vulnerable to oppressive tactics. In an interview with Der Spiegel, Stovall claims that Ronaldo’s representatives, “developed a strategy that took advantage of [Mayorga’s] emotional state." Stovall also contends that emails show that Ronaldo’s attorneys discussed Mayorga’s health issues.
To counter this point, Ronaldo’s attorneys will likely highlight that, as attorneys for Ronaldo in 2009, they were supposed to be zealous advocates for their client in his dispute with Mayorga. While the Model Rules of Professional Conduct forbid attorneys from partaking in unethical acts, attorneys are nonetheless obligated to pursue strategies that benefit their client—not level the playing field for the other side. Along those lines, it is not uncommon for clients with the requisite financial means to hire private investigators to research persons who may have legal claims against them. Ronaldo’s extraordinary wealth allowed him to hire a team of investigators. By itself, there is nothing wrong or unlawful with such a maneuver. Further, Ronaldo’s attorneys will emphasize that Mayorga had retained an attorney, Mary S., who should have protected Mayorga from unfair bargaining. If Mary S. failed to do so, perhaps Mayorga should have sued Mary S. for malpractice instead of suing Ronaldo for negotiating a favorable deal.
The third and final rationale Mayorga asserts as a justification for voiding the settlement is her contention that Ronaldo fraudulently procured the settlement. Fraud is apparent when clear and precise evidence establishes that one party intentionally misrepresented critical facts and that the other party relied on such misrepresentation. Here, Mayorga proclaims that Ronaldo’s attorneys knowingly twisted the truth during the negotiations while knowing that Mayorga, in her weakened state, would fall prey to such deception. Mayorga also portrays the misrepresentations as obstructing justice since they arguably interfered with law enforcement’s investigation.
As a competing argument, Ronaldo’s attorneys will reiterate that Mayorga retained an attorney who had a professional duty to examine the terms of the settlement. If Mayorga failed to read or understand the settlement, that failure should rest with Mary S.
Mayorga claims she should be excused from settlement due to Ronaldo’s breach
Particularly given the difficulty of convincing a court to void a settlement agreement, Mayorga alternatively argues that she is excused from the settlement due to Ronaldo breaching it. The settlement agreement reportedly contained a provision that Ronaldo personally read a letter from Mayorga within two weeks of receiving the letter. As detailed by Der Spiegel, one of Ronaldo’s attorneys confirmed that Ronaldo had read the letter. Yet Ronaldo’s agency, Gestifute, claims that Ronaldo never received the letter and thus could not have read it.
Whether or not Ronaldo read the letter may not seem like a crucial point—after all, even if he read it, he could have disagreed with its contents or simply discarded it. Yet this query becomes potentially crucial if Ronaldo was obligated to read the letter as a condition of the settlement. Just like Mayorga faced a number of conditions related to the settlement, so, too, did Ronaldo. If Ronaldo breached the settlement, a court may find that Mayorga obtained the right to void the settlement or at least obtain financial damages.
Other claims in Mayora’s lawsuit and how they can be proved or disproved
If Mayorga succeeds in persuading a court to allow her case to continue in spite of the signed settlement, her lawsuit’s other claims would receive close scrutiny.
One claim is for battery, which refers to Ronaldo allegedly assaulting Mayorga without her consent and placing her in fear of imminent harm. Mayorga also pleads a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, which contends that Ronaldo tried to cause her severe emotional distress through extreme and outrageous conduct—including the anal rape and the allegedly bullying tactics in the weeks and months that followed. In addition, Mayorga contends that Ronaldo is liable for abuse of a vulnerable person. Nevada law defines a “vulnerable person” as someone who either suffers from a condition of physical or mental incapacitation due to brain damage or mental illness or has a physical or mental limitation that restricts their ability to perform the normal activities of daily living. Mayorga charges that Ronaldo engaged in “malicious, fraudulent [and] oppressive” conduct with the intent of hurting her while she was a “vulnerable person” in the wake of the alleged rape.
Mayorga’s lawsuit demands at a sum in excess of $200,000 in her lawsuit, as she requests in excess of $50,000 in four separate categories of damages (general damages, special damages, punitive damages and statutory penalties). These may seem like relatively low numbers—especially given that Mayorga contends that Ronaldo raped her and given that Ronaldo is worth several hundred million dollars. The key phrase, however, is “in excess of.” The $50,000 amount is a pleading requirement under state law to avoid non-binding arbitration and the phrase “in excess of” signals that the amount is greater than $50,000. To be sure, Mayorga and her attorney, Stovall, will demand millions of dollars from Ronaldo at the appropriate time in the litigation.
In his legal defense, Ronaldo will claim that Mayorga’s account is untrue. He will deny that a non-consensual sexual act occurred. While some might dismiss such a situation as “he said/she said,” jurors are permitted to determine that either the accuser or the accused is more believable. In other words, even if jurors have no other evidence or testimony than the conflicting accounts of Mayorga and Ronaldo, it would be within their right to conclude that they believe one person more than the other.
There are, of course, other witnesses, though possibly not witnesses to the sexual acts in the suite. Mayorga was accompanied by a friend, and there were multiple people in the suite. Even if none of them saw Mayorga and Ronaldo engaging in sexual behavior, they might still offer useful testimony. For instance, those witnesses could testify as to any suggestive or telling remarks made by Mayorga and Ronaldo. These witnesses could also share their impressions of Mayorga and Ronaldo’s respective temperaments before and after the alleged sexual encounter and whether Mayorga and Ronaldo behaved normally or abnormally. In addition, though Mayorga was ordered to destroy electronic and physical evidence as part of the settlement, it is possible that some evidence remains through other persons who were in the suite.
As a separate point, Ronaldo’s attorneys might assert that some of the alleged sources of evidence published by Der Spiegel—especially Ronaldo’s supposed confidential admissions to his attorneys and advisors—fall under attorney-client privilege and are thus inadmissible. However, since those admissions have been published (albeit without Ronaldo’s authorization) and are thus no longer confidential, the extent to which the privilege still applies could become a legal issue. The “crime-fraud” exception to the attorney-client privilege is also potentially relevant. It instructs that the privilege is waived when an attorney-client communication is intended to conceal a crime. To that end, Mayorga might assert that the crime-fraud exception applies since, in her view, Ronaldo had orchestrated a cover-up of a crime. Expect a vigorous debate over the admissibility of some of the materials acquired by Football Leaks and published by Der Spiegel.
Ronaldo’s attorneys might argue that all of Mayorga’s claims are barred by relevant statutes of limitation. Under Nevada law, plaintiffs generally have between two and four years to file a lawsuit. Mayorga’s lawsuit has been brought nine years after the incident, and thus seemingly too late in time. In response, expect Stovall to contend that the relevant statutes of limitation are tolled (extended) on account of Mayorga not pursuing her claims as part of the settlement agreement.
The re-opened criminal investigation and implications for Ronaldo
The greatest legal concern for Ronaldo is not the possible nullification of a nearly decade-old settlement or that he might be compelled to pay Mayorga millions of dollars. Instead, it’s that he could face criminal charges for sexual assault and then be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.
To be clear, the likelihood of Ronaldo being criminally charged for an incident that occurred in 2009 remains low. A significant amount of time has passed since 2009. Both witness recollections and available evidence are likely much less persuasive now than they were in the weeks and months following the incident. Along those lines, over time witnesses can become unavailable and evidence can be lost or damaged. Also, the fact that law enforcement did not pursue Mayorga’s claims in 2009 could suggest that there are complications or discrepancies in her account that would make a prosecution difficult and thus unappealing to prosecutors.
On the other hand, Nevada recently changed its law to extend the statute of limitations for sexual assault charges from four years to 20 years. Also, a conviction on sexual assault can carry a life sentence, with a chance of parole after 10 or 15 years depending on bodily harm to the victim. Of more immediate concern to Ronaldo, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department announced on Monday that the department has re-opened the investigation into the 2009 incident. The police department’s statement also indicates that detectives are following-up on information provided by Mayorga.
As noted above, Mayorga believes that the police not only wrongly discouraged her from pursuing Ronaldo back in 2009 but that someone in the police department was surreptitiously feeding critical information about her to Ronaldo’s “personal reputation protection specialists.” Mayorga, in other words, may have reason to be skeptical of the genuineness of police’s interest in her case. However, the Vegas police department in 2018 no doubt features different personnel—including a new police chief, Joe Lombardo—than in 2009.
As part of the investigation, detectives will want to interview Ronaldo. Whether Ronaldo complies with an interview request remains to be seen. To the extent he cooperates with the police, he might be more willing to answer questions in writing than in a live interview. That way, Ronaldo’s attorneys could help him craft the most favorable answers. If Ronaldo agrees to answer questions live, he would probably demand that the interview occur through conference video where he answers questions from Italy, Portugal or some other European country rather than in Las Vegas. Unless and until his attorneys are convinced he need not worry about being charged while traveling in the U.S., and particularly Nevada, Ronaldo might be advised to stay out of the U.S.
Not to get too far ahead, but if Ronaldo is eventually charged in Las Vegas and if he refuses to voluntarily appear, prosecutors could take steps to request the extradition of Ronaldo to the United States. Extradition is a complex topic that normally requires the involvement of the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser, the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs and a judge. To that end, police and prosecutors cannot forcibly relocate foreign nationals to appear in the U.S. to stand trial. Jurisdiction, which refers to the power or a state or country to exercise its location, is restricted to states or the country—it does not extend to foreign lands. In order to compel a person in a foreign country to appear in the U.S., a judge in the country in which that person is located must approve it. Whether a judge does so is in part guided by the existence of an extradition treaty between the country in which the judge presides and the country that seeks the defendant.
The U.S. has extradition treaties with European countries, including with Italy and Portugal. These treaties generally instruct that the countries will authorize extradition if the defendant committed an act that would be a crime in either country. But in reality, the extradition process can become drawn out and politicized. Courts, in fact, can reject extradition on grounds that charges are politically motivated. If Ronaldo were charged and needed to fight extradition, his attorneys might insist that he is the target of U.S. prosecutors because of his celebrity and because local courts are favoring one of their own citizens over Ronaldo, a foreign national.
Role of morals clauses in Ronaldo’s endorsement deals
As a secondary concern to Ronaldo, his endorsement contracts could become endangered if endorsed companies determine he is too unpopular due to the rape allegation. Ronaldo has a lot on the line in endorsement money. According to Forbes, Ronaldo earns $47 million a year in endorsements, including from lucrative deals with Nike and EA Sports. Endorsement contracts with major companies virtually always include “morals clauses.” These clauses permit an endorsed company to exit or suspend payments if the athlete engages in any sort of public controversy. In order to provide the company with maximum flexibility, morals clauses are intentionally written in all-encompassing language—such as the company can exit the deal if the athlete “does anything that shall be an offense involving moral turpitude under federal, state or local laws, or which brings the athlete or company into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which insults or offends the community.” Particularly in the Me Too era, allegations of sexual assault are extremely damaging to one’s reputation.
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.