A federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and Title IX violations has been filed against Judson College and a former employee.

The suit, filed last week by former Judson College student Alexis Burt, claims that she was sexually harassed via Facebook by J. William “Billy” McFarland Jr. in May.

Burt, who was 19 at the time, said in her complaint to the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Alabama that McFarland, 39, sent her a friend request following a luncheon in his honor on May 21 and immediately began making lewd suggestions.

“McFarland offered to pay Burt $1,000 per month if she would engage in ‘dom sub’ roleplay,” said Ashley Rhea, Burt’s Birmingham-based attorney, in the civil complaint. “Additionally, McFarland offered to pay Burt a ‘cash starting bonus.’

“Burt replied to McFarland stating, ‘Wow, an influential man like yourself messaging for roleplay,’ to which McFarland replied, ‘Lol. At least I’m honest.’”

The messages continued into the next day and grew more vulgar and sexually suggestive as McFarland increased the monthly payment offer to $2,000, the complaint said, noting that McFarland described masochistic sexual practices to Burt that he wanted to use.

“On May 22, 2018, McFarland sent Burt a private message on Facebook asking her again to consider a ‘role-play’ arrangement with the offer of ‘I’ll take care of you$,’ ” the complaint said. “McFarland continued to message Burt for two hours calling her (sexually) derogatory terms."

McFarland, who resigned his position as special assistant to the president for business development at Judson College in April, told The Tuscaloosa News that he does not know nor has ever met Burt.

He also said he had no social media connections to Burt and had not communicated with her “to my knowledge.”

“All I can say is I have never met Alexis Burt or talked to her by telephone or email,” said McFarland, 39. “I don't know her.”

McFarland, who is currently on vacation out of the country, later sent a statement to The News through a Birmingham-based attorney.

“This lawsuit is nothing more than a #MeToo-style blackmail/extortion attempt,” the statement said. “If I do not pay money on demand I am then threatened with a false complaint, designed to be embarrassing and humiliating, filed in the court system which then makes its way into the news.

“The allegations are completely false and just an attempt to try and publicly embarrass me. I sincerely hope that The Tuscaloosa News will do me the favor of also publishing the facts of the conclusion of this lawsuit as it has rushed to publish the beginning.”

Judson College Interim President Scott Bullard confirmed that he and others hosted a send-off luncheon for McFarland on May 21 at an off-campus restaurant.

Beyond that, Bullard said the women’s college in Marion works to create a safe environment for all of its students.

“Judson College strongly opposes sexual harassment in any form and is committed to maintaining a positive and productive environment in which the dignity and worth of all people is respected,” Bullard said in a prepared statement. “Judson College has policies and procedures in place to ensure that this commitment is met.

“Judson College encourages anyone who believes that they have been subjected to inappropriate conduct to report that conduct immediately. Judson College will take immediate and appropriate action in response to all such reports.”

Burt dropped out of Judson College soon after being contacted by McFarland, her attorney said.

She is now asking the court to award punitive, compensatory and nominal damages against Judson College and punitive damages against McFarland.

“The concern really, truly, from her and her family is that he’s out there still making comments and doing things to young women,” Rhea said. “It needs to be brought to light. …

“He thinks (his conduct) is OK and it’s fine, but it’s not fine. You don’t do that.”

McFarland pleaded no contest last year in Marengo County following a similar accusation from a woman who described herself as his ex-girlfriend.

The woman told police in August 2017 that she had been subjected to sexually harassing messages from McFarland after she declined to send him provocative photos of herself and broke off the relationship after about five months of dating.

Court records show that she told Marengo County authorities that McFarland called her sexually degrading names and threatened to publicly expose the one photo she did send him.

“She has text messages in her phone from Mr. McFarland. He is talking dirty in the text, he is also threatening to send the picture that he has of her to her boss …,” a Marengo County deputy wrote in a report. “He is also threatening to sell the photo to a website.

“Mr. McFarland is advising her if she gives him 15 minutes of her time that he won’t put the picture on the internet.”

In November 2017, McFarland pleaded no contest to one count of harassing communications and agreed to pay the woman $730 in restitution.

Court records said the misdemeanor criminal charge would be removed from his record as long as he does not engage in any criminal activity for a year.

McFarland dismisses this accusation as a political move.

Though he announced his intention to run for the House District 61 seat vacated by state Rep. Alan Harper in September 2017, the "Rising Republican Star" — as McFarland was labeled by the state Republican Party in 2013 — withdrew from the race in March citing “unforeseen health issues.”

Leaving the race handed the Republican nomination to Northport City Councilman Rodney Sullivan, who won the House District 61 seat on Tuesday.

The case filed Oct. 30 by Burt, the former Judson College student, does not violate McFarland’s plea agreement in Marengo County because it is a civil complaint.

Rhea said her client attempted to bring a criminal complaint against McFarland as a result of his messages to her, but that prosecutors in Jefferson County, where Burt lives, declined to proceed with any criminal charges because Burt was not a minor at the time of the communications.

“That’s what they told the family,” Rhea said.

As for Judson College, Rhea said administrators should have done more to protect her client and potentially any other women McFarland encountered.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX statutes, which protect students from any form of sexual discrimination from any institution that receives federal funds. Judson College benefits, in part, from these dollars despite being a private, Christian women's college that offers four-year degrees in liberal arts and the sciences.

The court case said Burt went to Susan Jones, Judson College’s senior vice president and dean of students, to report McFarland’s sexual harassment and was told “that other students had reported sexual harassment by McFarland,” but the school had taken no action to correct it, the lawsuit said.

Burt withdrew from school in late May.

“There are indications that they did know and just didn’t do anything,” Rhea said. “This (lawsuit) is to try and keep him from possibly doing things like this in the future.”

 

Reach Jason Morton at jason.morton@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0200.