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Could 24th lawsuit against Deshaun Watson eventually allow Browns to void his guarantees?

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Perhaps the most significant development from Monday in the Deshaun Watson situation was no development at all. Specifically, the lack of a response from Watson’s team to the 24th lawsuit could end up creating significant consequences for Watson with the league and/or the team.

Attorney Rusty Hardin issued a statement on Monday indicating that he’s unable to respond to the 24th lawsuit because “our legal team has not had time to investigate this new filing and had not heard her name until today.”

There’s an important distinction between not hearing her name and not being aware of her potential claims. The early stages of the civil litigation against Watson featured a delicate and convoluted guessing game as to who the plaintiffs were, because they initially sued under the Jane Doe pseudonym. The effort to identify potential plaintiffs potentially included a person whose name Watson didn’t know or remember who eventually would make the claims reduced to writing in the lawsuit filed Monday. Hardin’s statement says only that they hadn’t heard the person’s name until Monday; it’s possible they knew, via aggressive questioning of their own client, that there was a 24th interaction that could have resulted in a claim being made.

That’s important for multiple reasons. First, if this person whose name previously wasn’t known to Watson’s legal team now files a criminal complaint, the allegations could be submitted to another grand jury. And the graphic details contained in the 24th complaint, if repeated to a grand jury and accepted by the grand jury, could result in an indictment. (Although I’ve tried to avoid repeating the graphic details, the 24th plaintiff contends that, after trying to get the plaintiff to to touch his penis and asking her “where do you want me to put it?” he ejaculated — and “some of his ejaculate got on Plaintiff’s chest and face.”)

Second, if Watson eventually is suspended for the conduct alleged in the 24th lawsuit, the Browns possibly will be able to void his guarantees and move on from him, and possibly to recover a significant portion of his signing bonus.

As explained in early April, after we obtained a full copy of Watson’s contract, the contract exempts from the standard default/guarantee void language a suspension imposed by the league “solely in connection with matters disclosed to Club in writing pursuant to paragraph 42 and such suspension results in Player’s unavailability to Club solely for games during the 2022 or 2023 NFL League Years.”

In paragraph 42 of the contract, Watson “represents and warrants (except as disclosed to club in writing), as of the date hereof, that (i) Player has not been charged with, indicted for, convicted of or pled nolo contende to any felony and/or misdemeanor involving fraud or moral turpitude, (ii) Player has not engaged in conduct which would subject him to a charge, indictment or conviction of any such offence, and (iii) no circumstances exist that would prevent Player’s continuing availability to the Club for the duration of this Contract.”

The written disclosure was not attached to the contract. A source with knowledge of the document told us in April that it’s a “fair assumption” that it refers to the 22 pending civil lawsuits.

The question now becomes whether it was written broadly enough to encompass individuals who had not previously come forward, either with a lawsuit, a criminal complaint, or some other public statement. The plaintiff who sued last week, for example, was known to Watson’s camp because she did a podcast interview last August. Based on Hardin’s statement, they didn’t know the name of the person who filed the 24th lawsuit until Monday.

Beyond the question of whether the 24th plaintiff’s claims could potentially fall beyond the language of the exception to the default language in Watson’s contract is the basic reality that Watson ultimately could be suspended at some point after 2022 and 2023. Without any clear indication as to when the NFL will act against Watson and with literally two dozen lawsuits that will work their way through the legal system (with August 1 through March 1 out of bounds for any of the trials), if the league either defers all punishment until the cases are over (not likely) or imposes a preliminary suspension now and leaves the door open for another suspension based on the outcomes of the cases (a reasonable middle ground), Watson could still face a suspension in 2024 or beyond.

Then there’s the possibility that still can’t be ignored of the NFL changing its position on paid leave. Although Commissioner Roger Goodell removed paid leave from the table in late March, recent developments could put it back in play. When we asked the league that very specific question on Monday — a question the Commissioner freely answered in March — the league had no comment.

So we’ll see how it all plays out. For the first time since the flurry of lawsuits was filed in 2021, however, a case will play out involving a person whose name wasn’t previously known to Watson’s camp. That could (not will, but could) potentially create major problems for Watson, in multiple ways.

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