It’s been nearly 11 years since Cristiano Ronaldo, as described by Kathryn Mayorga, assaulted her in a Las Vegas penthouse suite. The 35-year-old Juventus star has long denied the account, which never led to a criminal charge but did lead to Mayorga suing Ronaldo in 2018 for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, coercion, fraud, abuse of a vulnerable person, racketeering, defamation, abuse of process, negligence and breach of contract.
A ruling by a federal magistrate judge this week recommends that remaining legal fallout be addressed in a confidential arbitration proceeding rather than in a public trial. While Mayorga’s attorney can object to the magistrate judge’s ruling, it will most likely hold.
Mayorga, in other words, will probably not get her day in court.
How has a sexual assault case involving one of the world’s most prominent and affluent athletes mostly sidestepped the U.S. justice system? The case has been constrained by incomplete investigations, jurisdictional boundaries and contractual waivers.
The disputed incident
The genesis of the controversy occurred on Friday, June 12, 2009. Mayorga, then 25, met Ronaldo for the first time. They saw each other at the Rain Nightclub in the Palms and struck up a conversation. She contends that after chatting with 24-year-old Ronaldo, he invited her and a friend up to his penthouse suite. Mayorga and her friend accepted the invitation.
Not long after Mayorga had entered the suite, Ronaldo directed his guests to join him in a hot tub that was located on the suite’s balcony. Mayorga wasn’t wearing a bathing suit, but Ronaldo told her not to worry since she could borrow athletic shorts and a T-shirt from him.
While Mayorga changed in a bathroom, Ronaldo entered and exposed himself, she said. Then he asked her to perform a sexual act and she refused. As Mayorga tried to exit the situation, Ronaldo raped her, she said. Mayorga recalls yelling “no, no, no” at Ronaldo. According to Mayorga, Ronaldo eventually stopped and apologized. He also assured her that he had acted out of character and that he normally behaves as a gentleman. Mayorga then left the suite.
To be clear, the above account is an allegation. It has not been proved in court. Ronaldo and his representatives unequivocally deny that he engaged in a sexual act with Mayorga without her consent.
Conflicting narratives of police involvement and hurdles for detectives
As told by Mayorga, she felt victimized not only by Ronaldo but also by the health care professionals and law enforcement officers with whom she confided.
Within hours of the incident, Mayorga visited a nearby hospital for treatment. Mayorga said that a medical exam corroborated her account. Yet Mayorga recalled that the attending nurse tried to dissuade her from telling the police. The nurse, Mayorga maintains, warned her that she would be portrayed as an extorter and the public wouldn’t believe her.
Mayorga recalls receiving similar discouragement from the Las Vegas Metro Police Department), whom she believed leaked key information to Ronaldo’s representatives. According to Mayorga, a detective steered her away from accusing Ronaldo. The detective, whose name isn’t known, warned her that she would face backlash if she publicly accused Ronaldo of brutalizing her.
The LVMPD and the office of the Clark County District Attorney dispute Mayorga’s critical depiction of law enforcement. They also describe Mayorga as less than cooperative in her conversations with detectives and as reticent as to crucial information.
According to a statement issued last year by the district attorney's office, Mayorga hindered detectives by declining to share the identity of the man who she says assaulted her (Mayorga claims she told detectives the culprit was a famous soccer player) and not telling detectives where the incident took place. This assertion is important when trying to make sense of the controversy’s timeline. If the police didn’t know who allegedly assaulted Mayorga or where the incident occurred, then they couldn’t conduct a credible investigation.
Specifically, detectives weren’t on notice to interview Ronaldo, fellow penthouse guests or other nightclub patrons who might have observed Ronaldo while he was around Mayorga. Likewise, they couldn’t pursue a DNA sample from Ronaldo, which would have been more obtainable while he remained in the United States. And, without a known crime scene, detectives neither impounded forensic evidence nor seized surveillance video and electronic data.
Although those investigative steps could be taken at later dates, evidence and witness recollections tend to deteriorate over time. Evidence and witnesses also often become less available as the months and years pass. It usually becomes harder to charge a person with a crime as more time elapses between an incident and an investigation. The district attorney’s office also stressed that Mayorga halted contact with the office after she and Ronaldo reached an out-of-court settlement in August 2010. She resumed contact only eight years later. After reopening the investigation in 2018, law enforcement determined it could not establish with sufficient certainty that a crime occurred.
It’s possible that certain aspects of both Mayorga’s retelling of facts and law enforcement’s retelling of facts are true. It’s also possible that certain aspects are inaccurate or unprovable. What is certain is that we’ll likely never know for sure.
Ronaldo was difficult to pursue in a U.S. court while out of the country
Although a person who is outside of the United States can be criminally charged or civilly sued in the United States, the ability to effectively litigate against that person is inhibited by jurisdictional boundaries. This factor has advantaged Ronaldo and disadvantaged Mayorga.
A native of Funchal, Portugal, Ronaldo is not a U.S. citizen. He also resides in Turin, Italy. U.S. judges, prosecutors and attorneys generally cannot exercise their authorities on foreign nationals while they are outside of U.S. borders.
To pursue a case against a person in another country, U.S. courts need the cooperation and acquiescence of courts and government officials in that other country. This is true when U.S. law enforcement and the U.S. State Department attempt to extradite someone. It is also true when local police try to execute a search warrant on a person while they are abroad.
Ronaldo was never charged with a crime, but had he been charged, U.S. authorities would have faced significant challenges in trying to extradite him. Extradition is often a complex and lengthy process that typically centers on two main factors: (1) whether the U.S. extradition treaty with the country in question contemplates the type of criminal charge faced by the defendant and (2) whether judges and government officials in that other country would approve extradition. Defendants often attempt to stop extradition by claiming that the charges are politically motivated. Ronaldo could have asserted that Las Vegas prosecutors hoped to make a “career case” out of prosecuting a person of his global celebrity.
Even without a criminal case, Ronaldo’s foreign location took on legal significance. As part of their investigation, Las Vegas police issued a search warrant for a DNA sample from Ronaldo. Las Vegas police officers have no legal authority to conduct law enforcement activities in Italy, and a U.S.-issued search warrant has no effect in Italy. The only way officers could have forced Ronaldo to comply with a warrant was if an Italian tribunal approved it. A DNA match would also not necessarily be conclusive of a sexual crime. It would help to confirm that a sexual encounter occurred, though Ronaldo has not disputed that an encounter occurred—the disagreement is about whether the encounter was consensual.
Attorneys for Mayorga also struggled to formally notify Ronaldo of the lawsuit, a procedural requirement in the U.S. legal system. Court documents last year indicated that Ronaldo could not be found in a location where he could physically be served with the complaint (lawsuit) or the summons (official notice that a case has been filed). This obstacle led Mayorga’s attorneys to voluntarily dismiss the case from state court and file it in federal court.
Trying Ronaldo “in absentia” is also a nonstarter. Per both Nevada law and Italian law, a fair trial requires the defendant be present. If Ronaldo doesn’t voluntarily appear in the U.S. to face a trial, the odds of a trial happening are extremely low.
The durability of the out-of-court settlement
The most substantial obstacle for Mayorga in pursuing a lawsuit against Ronaldo is her own signature.
In 2010, Mayorga and Ronaldo agreed to an out-of-court settlement and confidentiality agreement. This agreement followed mediation, where a private mediator heard arguments by Mayorga and Ronaldo and proposed a nonbinding resolution to both sides. That proposal eventually became the basis of an agreement that both Mayorga and Ronaldo signed.
In their agreement, Mayorga pledged to forgo any legal claims she held against Ronaldo and destroy any and all pertinent evidence. In exchange, Ronaldo—whose net worth is reportedly about $450 million—pledged to pay Mayorga $375,000 and read a letter that she had written to him. The settlement, also termed a “pre-litigation resolution,” further obligated both Mayorga and Ronaldo to: 1) maintain strict confidentiality about all facts related to their situation; 2) not disparage the other; and 3) accept that any dispute arising out of, or related to, their resolution would be resolved via binding confidential arbitration.
Over time, Mayorga would come to regret the settlement. She would eventually challenge it in court. In court filings, Mayorga contends that the settlement agreement is void and unenforceable.
Her main two justifications for voiding the agreement are as follows: (1) due to continued trauma and psychological distress from the alleged assault, she lacked the capacity to understand the agreement and thus her signature of it is invalid; and (2) since the agreement concerned a sexual assault, it ought to be rendered void on account of public policy.
Judge Albregts, a former public defender and seasoned trial attorney, noted that both Mayorga and Ronaldo (1) signed the contract; (2) initialed their consent on each page and (3) initialed their consent “after the bolded provision in the dispute resolution section acknowledging that they were forging their right to a jury trial in favor of mandatory arbitration.” Mayorga, in other words, repeatedly indicated that she accepted the terms of the agreement, including its arbitration clause. She also had retained legal counsel in the settlement negotiations and rafting. To the extent an attorney gave her bad advice, the appropriate remedy would be for her to sue the attorney for malpractice.
Judge Albregts also maintained that whether Mayorga lacked the capacity to enter into a contract with Ronaldo “goes to the agreement as a whole, not just the arbitration provision.” This was a significant finding to Judge Albregts. Decisions about the entire agreement’s validity, he reasoned, are to be determined by the arbitrator. Judge Albregts further noted that while the Federal Arbitration Act contains language that authorizes a trial over whether a party to an arbitration contract lacked mental capacity, no such provision is contained under Nevada law, and Nevada law is controlling in this dispute.
Judge Albregts also objected to Mayorga’s claim that the agreement is void as a matter of public policy. Mayorga stressed that the agreement involved the confidential settlement of a sexual assault. In the #MeToo era, nondisclosure agreements that block disclosure of sexual assaults are increasingly disfavored. Judge Albregts noted that the Mayorga-Ronaldo agreement was signed in August 2010. At that time, “Nevada did not have any law evincing a public policy prohibiting non-disclosure or arbitration agreements of sexual assault claims.” He also observed that while employers’ use of nondisclosure agreements has come under fire in recent years—including in Nevada, which last year adopted an applicable law—that development isn’t relevant to this dispute: Ronaldo wasn’t Mayorga’s employer.
Why Ronaldo benefits with arbitration and why Mayorga can still raise a challenge
For Ronaldo, the use of arbitration to resolve Mayorga’s claims is itself a win. Arbitration, unlike a lawsuit, is conducted in private, with no jury or judge present. Any emails, texts and other documents that Ronaldo is obligated to share with Mayorga would be confidential and out of public and media viewing. Also, the ultimate resolution of the arbitration would be in the form of an arbitrator’s “award”—the arbitration word for ruling—and it would be confidential to the parties.
For at least two reasons, privacy is of enormous value to Ronaldo.
First, while it is extremely unlikely at this stage that Ronaldo would be charged with the crime of sexual assault, that possibility doesn’t extinguish until the statute of limitations for such a charge runs out in 2029. If Mayorga’s case against him led to troubling disclosures, it’s possible the police could revisit the matter. If those same disclosures are raised during an arbitration, they would likely remain confidential.
Second, a sizable portion of Ronaldo’s annual income is tied to highly lucrative endorsement deals, including a contract with Nike that reportedly pays him $17.8 million a year. Endorsement deals with major brands contain “morals clauses,” which allow the endorsed company to drop an athlete if he or she runs into controversy. Nike has stood by Ronaldo but if the litigation produced damaging disclosures, the company could revisit its loyalty. Those kinds of disclosures are far less likely to occur through arbitration.
Although Judge Albregts’s order is a setback for Mayorga, she can challenge it. First, under applicable law, she and her attorneys have 14 days to write an objection. The objection would be detailed in a memorandum and would need to be supported by points and appropriate citations to precedent.
Second, Judge Albregts’s order is a labeled a “report and recommendation” for a reason. It will be reviewed by the U.S district court judge assigned to the case. That judge is Jennifer Dorsey, who can accept, reject, or modify in whole or in part, Judge Albregts’s report and recommendation. While Judge Albregts’s report appears to be well-reasoned and logical, it’s not a guarantee Judge Dorsey will embrace it. Judge Dorsey’s decision is also not necessarily the final say on the matter: So long as Mayorga files a timely objection to Judge Albregts’s order, she preserves the right to appeal Judge Dorsey’s eventual order as well.
Long story short: As is often the case in federal trials, it’s not over until many, many procedural steps have been traveled. Of course, Mayorga and Ronaldo could at any time agree to a new settlement, and if so, the case would be dismissed.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.