Michelle Simpson Tuegel was a key player in the largest settlement ever reached in a sexual abuse case involving an American university. She is also a world-champion water skier and a former capital defense attorney, having represented clients on death row. Those three things are all related, more so than you might imagine.
The eldest daughter of a trial attorney father and dental hygienist mother, Tuegel grew up in Bridgeport, Texas, a small town north of Fort Worth with a sizable lake where she spent her childhood on skis. When I met the 36-year-old attorney in the law office she opened last January, in an exposed brick loft building in Deep Ellum, she was fresh out of a four-hour ESPN interview with some of her gymnast clients. Wearing a stylish floral-print dress and heels, her fingernails painted black, she still exuded athleticism. It was easy to imagine that even at a young age she was taller than average and had that fearlessness that comes from physical confidence, thriving on speed and the challenge of staying upright on a fluid surface.
She made the junior U.S. water ski team and went pro at 15, competing around the world on the national team for six years. It’s still not an Olympic sport, but if it were, it’s a good bet she would have medaled. As it was, the U.S. Olympic Committee paid for her training and she won the collegiate national championship and the World Cup championship as an undergrad at Rollins College, in Winter Park, Florida.
Following in her father’s career footsteps, Tuegel hung up her skis and went to Baylor for law school. She knew from the beginning she wanted to be a prosecutor. Her now-husband, Andrew, was in the same class, and when they graduated he got a job in Waco at a plaintiffs’ firm. They decided to stay, but it was an election year and Abel Reyna was being sworn in as McLennan County’s new district attorney.
Even before Reyna courted controversy with his mishandling of the deadly Twin Peaks biker shooting in Waco, seeking indictments against 155 bikers only to have all of the charges dismissed, Tuegel knew she didn’t want to start her career in his office. So she opted for criminal defense instead.
She ended up liking defense work. She didn’t know if she’d do it forever, but it got her in the courtroom and gave her the kind of trial experience that most of her peers still don’t have. McLennan County didn’t have a public defender’s office, so judges would appoint Tuegel to represent criminal defendants, including those facing the death penalty.
I pause when she tells me that, surprised that a recent law school grad would serve as second chair on capital murder cases, and somewhat facetiously ask if she’d recommend it to others as a fast-track career path. She says she’s glad people do it, but no. “It will make you lose your soul a little bit. Or a lot,” she says. “Because clients who usually are in that position have had the worst lives, even before their birth through adulthood.”
She doesn’t want to excuse what they did, but part of her skill as a defense attorney was to be able to recognize how her clients were often victimized first as children. That also made the job harder to do.
“To see that picture, and the mercilessness of the system towards them, is disheartening work,” she says. “It’s thankless work. It’s not well-paid work. That wasn’t my motivation—I felt I really went into it thinking I was going to make a difference, as idealistic as that sounds. And then you really just feel you’re more of a tour guide through hell.”
Tuegel’s criminal defense background provided a natural transition to Title IX work. The federal statute prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs, and it creates a mechanism for students to file administrative complaints of harassment, sexual assault, and rape through colleges and universities. They can operate like mini criminal investigations, but although students are allowed to have advocates, they are not provided legal representation. There isn’t a universal format, and the staff involved often don’t have legal training, so things can quickly go pear shaped, and students on both sides can experience unjust results.
Families first hired Tuegel to represent some of the Baylor football players who were accused of sexual misconduct on campus. Eventually victims reached out to her, too, and she realized that was the work she really wanted to do.
“It fits me better,” she says. “And I enjoy it more. Starting to represent survivors in civil lawsuits, sadly, felt like such a breath of fresh air because I could do something for them. I could give them something. It didn’t make it go away. It didn’t fix it. They weren’t always happy. But I felt I did something.”
Tuegel didn’t know any other area lawyers doing Title IX work, so she had to educate herself. She found a lawyer in New York who specialized in representing students, and she cold-called him to ask questions. They started working together on cases, and Tuegel’s practice grew.
And then, in 2017, she got a call from Mo Aziz, a friend and plaintiffs’ attorney with Abraham Watkins, in Houston. Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor, had been indicted in Michigan for possessing some 37,000 images of child pornography and charged with 22 counts of criminal sexual conduct for assaulting young women and girls in his care. Aziz had already been contacted by some of Nassar’s victims, and he knew the claims were likely to mushroom.
Houston and Dallas are both huge gymnastics cities, and about halfway between sat the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center at Karolyi Ranch, in Huntsville, where parents weren’t allowed and Nassar was permitted for years to operate unsupervised—and without a Texas medical license. Aziz knew that Tuegel had experience with Title IX and that she had been a professional and collegiate athlete. He wanted her to come on board.
Tuegel agreed. Once they had their first national team member as a client, other survivors heard by word of mouth. In the beginning, they were the only firm in Texas representing Nassar survivors. They ended up with more than two dozen as clients.
One of the most horrifying aspects of the Nassar case is that the abuse—which most commonly included vaginal “massages” or vaginal and anal digital penetration under the guise of osteopathic “treatment,” without standard medical safeguards such as gloves, lubrication, or a chaperone, and with absolutely no valid medical purpose—dates back at least 30 years. And we now know it could have been stopped as early as 1997, when Nassar was hired as an assistant professor and team doctor at Michigan State University. That’s when a 16-year-old junior club gymnast reported the abuse to the head coach of the MSU gymnastics team.
“I’ve seen that the worst thing that can go wrong is when schools ignore it, which is what happened at Michigan State; it’s what happened at Baylor,” Tuegel says. “At a lot of these schools where you see these big blow-ups, an adult often knows something. And they choose to protect another adult or the program over the student or the child who’s reported something.”
Instead of initiating a Title IX investigation, the coach quickly shut the gymnast down. “They had some pretty clear notice,” Tuegel says. “Larissa Boyce was a gymnast who Nassar did this ‘treatment’ to. And she was at an age where she went to the gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, and said, ‘I am not comfortable with it.’ And she was made to feel she was crazy. Kathie Klages told Larissa, ‘If you report this, it’s just going to ruin his life, and it’s going to be really hard for you.’ And so it just stopped there.”
It would take an article in an Indianapolis newspaper, two decades later, to break the story wide open, eventually leading more than 500 victims to join as plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by Tuegel and others against MSU, making Nassar the most prolific documented sexual predator in sports history.
When the Indianapolis star reported in the fall of 2016 that USA Gymnastics, which is based in Indianapolis, had mishandled allegations of sexual abuse by coaches, the paper began receiving calls from gymnasts specifically naming Larry Nassar as an abuser. The Star ran a follow-up article, and dozens of women came forward. The police were finally forced to take action, and by that November the Michigan attorney general announced the first round of charges against Nassar.
In July 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty in federal court to child pornography charges, and a few months later he pleaded guilty to a total of 10 counts of criminal sexual conduct. Part of the plea deal stipulated that all of his victims would have the opportunity to make statements at his sentencing hearing. Over nine days in early 2018, more than 200 women stood up and confronted him. In addition to receiving 60 years for the child pornography charges, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years for the criminal sexual conduct. Based on Nassar’s age, the judge told him, “I just signed your death warrant.”
Jamie White, a plaintiffs’ attorney in Lansing, recognized two huge hurdles to the oncoming onslaught of civil litigation by attorneys like Aziz and Tuegel: the state statute of limitations for sex abuse crimes and the fact that MSU enjoyed immunity as a government institution.
Alyssa is one of my youngest clients, and I have a client who was abused before Alyssa was even born. It’s kind of mind-blowing about how long that went on. But it went on because athletes didn’t and weren’t able to communicate what was going on.
So even as he began coordinating with Tuegel and others who were assembling cases around the country against his alma mater, White headed to the Michigan Legislature. He needed to get a bill passed that would allow survivors more time to file legal actions and strip government institutions of immunity in cases of sexual abuse.
That’s where Tuegel’s half-billion dollar bluff came into play. Shortly after Nassar’s sentencing, in May 2018, the Nassar-
inspired bills were about to go before the state Legislature. Tuegel was attempting to negotiate a settlement with MSU, and White was back in Lansing, tracking the final language of the legislation. He realized that provisions expanding the statute of limitations would pass, but the one stripping governmental immunity for sexual abuse claims would not. MSU likely wouldn’t have to pay a dime.
White made a frantic call to the legal team, saying, “Make the deal now.”
“We were literally down to the minute,” Tuegel says of the final $500 million settlement. “We knew that it wasn’t passing, but we didn’t know if they knew which version was passing. The deal got inked just in time.”
For Tuegel, that was just the beginning. In August 2018, she filed a lawsuit on behalf of Alyssa Baumann, a Plano native then attending the University of Florida, against USA Gymnastics and the International Federation of Gymnastics. Baumann, who had trained at WOGA Gymnastics in Plano, says she was first abused by Nassar in 2013 at the Karolyi Ranch. The abuse continued at every national team camp she attended there through 2015, plus at three major events in China, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. She says the worst period was during the World Championships in China, when her coaches told her she needed to go to treatment every day, and the abuse happened every visit. She says Nassar gave her pills, telling her they were muscle relaxers, prior to the treatment.
“What was so sad about the whole situation is that I think all of us, at first, just thought he was doing it to help us,” Baumann tells me on the phone one evening after practice. “We really trusted him and didn’t question anything. That’s how we grew up, and how we were taught just to do what you’re told and not say anything. He seemed like our friend.”
Baumann first shared her concerns about Nassar with some of the other gymnasts at Karolyi Ranch before practice one day. A coach overheard and reported it, but no one ever followed up with Baumann. She also talked about the abuse with Aly Raisman, her former roommate at the ranch, but she wasn’t ready to address it until her freshman year at the University of Florida, when she really started struggling. That’s when she opened up to another teammate and Dallasite, Kennedy Baker.
“I talked to her about it because I was really close with her because she was a senior here and I was a freshman,” Baumann says. “I think it was about closure for me. I don’t think that he should have just gotten away with everything that he did to me. And it wasn’t even just about me—it’s harder for me that he did that to some of my closest friends. And so I just wanted there to be some justice with that.”
Tuegel was on the University of Florida campus to meet with Baker, and Baumann came along for the meeting. Later, Baumann met with Tuegel in Dallas and decided to hire her. “I felt like she understood my story and could connect with it,” Baumann says. “And it was also important to me that I had a female representing me in this situation.”
Baker, who moved to Lewisville when she was 11 to train at Texas Dreams, in Coppell, encountered Nassar for the first time when she made the national team. She says his abuse started in 2011 and occurred at every treatment she received at USA Gymnastics-sponsored competitions and training camps through 2014. Tuegel filed suit on her behalf at the end of 2018.
“I just want change to happen throughout the sport, and for all the upcoming gymnasts,” Baker says. “I think that young gymnasts need to be taken seriously. But also I think that everybody in the sport—especially the adults, the coaches, and the ones that are supposed to be protecting us—have to do a better job of really listening to the athletes around them. The culture of gymnastics is really not to say anything if you’re in any kind of pain: mental, physical, or emotional. It’s actually the opposite; you need to speak up for all of those things and be heard and listened to. That’s the biggest shift that needs to happen.”
In the case of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, it is possible to see how a university could have an interest in covering up sexual abuse by an assistant coach who is part of a football program that generates more than $100 million every year. But it is harder to understand why a university would cover up for an easily replaceable osteopath. Tuegel has a theory.
“To the people who learned the information, he was very valuable,” she says. “Because not every doctor would not report or cover up injuries like he did. That was a big piece of it. At the college and USA Gymnastics national team level, not every doctor is going to put a girl with a broken back on the floor and say she’s healthy, and convince her she’s healthy and that she needs to continue competing, which is what was happening. So he was valuable to them. It was a quid pro quo.
“I think ultimately the people in USA Gymnastics knew these girls were in pain. You can watch a video of some of my clients competing injured, and you can see it in their faces. And granted, we know now, so it’s in hindsight. But I don’t see how they don’t see what I see watching the video. There’s one of my clients, Jordan Schwikert, and she was competing at the nationals with a fractured back. Nassar had looked at the X-rays and MRIs. He had told her it was a muscle injury. It’s horrific to watch.
“She eventually had to undergo an experimental surgery at the Mayo Clinic at 15 to fuse her back together after Nassar had repeatedly told the USA team that she was healthy to compete.”
A major challenge in civil sexual abuse cases is that the statute of limitations is different in each state. Even in a single state, the time limit to sue might vary depending on what version of the statute was in place at the time the abuse occurred. Every time Texas has lengthened its statute, it has been only forward-looking, so anyone who was abused before the change must go by a different metric. “Figuring out the statute in Texas is a math problem for victims,” Tuegel says.
The original theory behind short statutes of limitation was that victims’ memories become less reliable over time. But current studies show that the average age that survivors of child abuse report is in their 50s. Texas’ original statute of limitations was two years. That was eventually increased to five, then 15.
In May 2019, Rep. Craig Goldman of Fort Worth introduced legislation to increase the time to sue to 30 years after the victim turns 18. The proposed bill came about after Becky Leach, wife of state Rep. Jeff Leach from Plano, shared her story of childhood sexual abuse before the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, which was chaired by her husband.
Tuegel became concerned when she heard that Goldman later amended the proposed legislation so that it would not apply to institutions. “They had changed it so the victim could only sue the perpetrator,” Tuegel says. “What that would mean is, if a victim was sexually abused by priests, they could only sue the priest. At 30 years, usually the priest is dead, in prison, or judgment proof. And that is useless to victims. It really took the wind out of the statute. It was injected by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Texas and the Boy Scouts, who have a lot of interest in preventing those types of lawsuits and limiting their own liability by taking themselves out of the bill.”
Tuegel called Sylvia Demarest, the attorney who tried the Rudy Kos case against the Dallas Catholic Diocese, and asked her who might be allies in the Legislature. “I knew Sen. Kirk Watson, who is a Baylor guy, had been supportive of a number of bills for sexual abuse survivors,” Tuegel says. “I reached out to him and told him I represent some of the Nassar survivors.”
Watson arranged to have three of Tuegel’s clients who were abused by Nassar testify before the Legislature in support of institutional accountability. One of them was Baumann.
“I jumped at the opportunity to go down there and share my story and why it was so important for me that the institutions were held responsible, because it wasn’t just one person that made this all happen,” Baumann says. “It was because of the culture that they created. There were many people involved in helping him abuse so many girls.”
In the end, the Legislature went back to the original version of the bill on behalf of which Becky Leach had testified, which allows survivors 30 years from age 18 or the date of abuse to sue the perpetrator and the organization responsible. It was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June and went into effect in September.
“It was really my clients who made it happen,” Tuegel says. “I was just an organizer. But it was their testimony that I think really shamed legislators. Many of the national survivors were abused in this state. And when they testified, they said, ‘This is the state where Nassar was allowed to do what he did, and he wasn’t the only one that was responsible for it.’ ”
But it’s not just about Nassar. As Tuegel says, “There are other beasts.” She represents other athletes who were abused by other coaches. She was the first attorney to file a lawsuit against MGM Resorts and Live Nation following the mass shooting in Las Vegas, on behalf of a young woman whose family was originally from Tuegel’s hometown. And she’s working with one of her two younger sisters, both of whom are lawyers in Dallas, on a case in East Texas that involves a female inmate who was sexually assaulted while being transported, alone, by a male guard.
Because her practice is growing nationally, Tuegel decided to move to Dallas and open her own office in Deep Ellum last January. Her husband had joined a Dallas firm, and she needed to be closer to a large airport to keep up the pace. Plus, she wanted to be near her sisters.
“I’m pretty open about the fact that my husband and I do not plan on having kids of our own, so being close to my sisters’ kids is really important to us,” Tuegel says. “We now live less than a mile away from them, and that has been amazing. The DFW area is also much closer to my parents, who still live in the town we grew up in.”
But now, ESPN interview done, she’s hitting the road. She’s representing some women at the University of Southern California who were abused by an OB-GYN there, and she has to head to New Jersey for some clergy abuse cases. For these clients, Tuegel knows she can’t fix what went wrong. She can’t make their pain go away. But she can give them something. And hopefully that creates change in the institutions made to pay the price.
Correction: Larissa Boyce was incorrectly identified as a college gymnast when she reported Larry Nassar’s conduct to Kathie Klages at MSU. She was a 16-year-old participating with the Spartan Juniors Club on the MSU campus at the time.