Judge won't dismiss suit against Dwight Howard

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Baxter Holmes, ESPN Senior WriterFeb 22, 2024, 03:46 PM ET

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Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

A Georgia judge denied a motion by lawyers for former NBA star center Dwight Howard to immediately dismiss a civil lawsuit against him that alleges sexual assault and battery.

The Gwinnett County judge made the ruling this week, according to a filing obtained by ESPN, while also ruling to seal an exhibit filed in December 2023 that contains what Howard's lawyers argued were embarrassing, sexually explicit text messages.

The lawsuit was filed in July 2023 by Stephen Harper, who alleges that Howard sexually assaulted him during a July 2021 encounter at Howard's Georgia residence, along with "intentional infliction of emotional distress" and false imprisonment.

"My comment, at this time, is that we are glad the court denied Mr. Howard's motion and look forward to proving our client's case," Harper's attorney, Olga Izmaylova, told ESPN on Thursday.

The case is still in the discovery phase, and no trial has been scheduled.

"Justice will prevail and we fully trust in our justice system and the process," Justin Bailey, one of Howard's attorneys, told ESPN. "This order is a part of the process. We will engage in discovery and will further prove our case and when the time is right we will let our future pleadings speak for themselves."

Howard's attorneys have on multiple occasions alleged that the encounter, which was said to involve another man, was consensual. In October 2023, Howard's lawyers denied the allegations and asked the court to dismiss the case. They went further in December 2023, asking the judge for a summary judgment in their favor -- and thus dismissing the charges without a trial.

In the initial complaint, Harper's lawyers said he and Howard first began corresponding over direct messages on Instagram in May 2021, with Harper initiating the exchange. That complaint included screenshots of alleged Instagram exchanges between Harper and Howard from 2021, along with an Uber receipt of Harper's trip to Howard's residence on the night of the encounter.

Harper went to police a year later, according to a July 2022 incident report from the Gwinnett County Police Department, which was obtained by ESPN. No charges were filed.

"This is nothing more than a classic case of unrequited love," Howard's lawyers wrote in a December 2023 filing obtained by ESPN. "After one consensual evening together, Mr. Howard was no longer interested in keeping Mr. Harper's company."

In a January 2024 response obtained by ESPN, Harper's lawyers asked the judge to deny the request for a summary judgment, writing that the case has "nothing to do with unrequited love." They asked the judge to see past Howard's efforts "to escape the consequences of his actions" and allow Harper to prove his claims to a jury.

On Feb. 15, according to a filing obtained by ESPN, Howard's attorneys responded, writing that "this lawsuit is merely being used to gratify private spite and promote public scandal."

Howard, 38, last played in the NBA in 2021-22 with the Los Angeles Lakers. He is an eight-time All-Star and a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

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