A group of former Rutgers-Newark female basketball players faced discrimination based on their race, gender and sexual orientation and their claims of retaliation will be revived in an existing lawsuit against the university, a ruled a state superior court appeals panel.
Appeals judges Clarkson Fisher, Patrick DeAlmeida and Morris Smith reversed a ruling that four of the six players did not experience materially adverse conduct from Rutgers-Newark officials. The June 2 ruling reinstated allegations of retaliation made by former players Jasmine Daniels, Jade Howard, Sarah Schwartz and Arianna Williams in the lawsuit involving Sharee Gordon and Adayshia McKinnon.
The decision is a victory for the plaintiffs in an explosive lawsuit against the university. They have long alleged sporting director Mark Griffin and former interim women’s basketball head coach William Zasowski made discriminatory comments that went unpunished by the administration in 2014 and 2015.
The players also claim Zasowski retaliated after complaining to university officials by being hostile, threatening to cancel the season and limiting Gordon’s playing time.
“The appeal ruling puts us in a better position for the trial as all of the plaintiffs’ allegations of discrimination and retaliation will be decided by a jury,” said Kevin Barber, the Morristown-based attorney representing the former players.
Rutgers denied the allegations, saying an internal investigation found no violations of its policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
Barber said the appeal decision was a “precedent decision”. He added that it was “a real extension of hostile work environment legislation”.
“The fact that you need to look at these things cumulatively, this is the first time it’s been discussed and adopted. It’s huge,” Barber said. “I would say this is the first court in the country to decide this issue. I don’t think I’ve read an opinion like this in my entire legal career.
In 2017, former women’s basketball coach Kevin Morris sued Rutgers-Newark, claiming he was fired after complaining about racist and homophobic comments made by Griffin. Seven of his former players have joined the lawsuit, saying Zasowski – the interim head coach chosen to replace Morris when he went on sick leave – also made derogatory comments. The seventh player was dismissed from the case over unrelated matters, Barber said.
Griffin regularly made homophobic and racist comments at staff meetings, according to the suit. In one instance, Morris claimed Griffin tried to assure employees that the new mascot “wouldn’t be gay.” In another instance, Griffin used a racial slur when describing the owner of a Newark laundromat as “Chinese,” according to the lawsuit.
Griffin did not return an email seeking comment. NJ Advance Media obtained an August 2014 letter from Griffin to Rutgers-Newark officials in which he denied the charges. In the letter, Griffin admitted to using the term “gay” when referring to the mascot, but meant “happy and friendly” and not a homosexual slur, he said. He also called it “the fact that we have a Chinese laundry here in Newark near campus and the owner is a Chinese man.”
Griffin has been the athletic director of Rutgers-Newark, which has 14 NCAA Division III teams, since 2004. His base salary is $147,107, according to college payroll records obtained by NJ Advance Media. show.
Zasowski is accused of calling Gordon and Howard “dykes”. He said another pair of black players looked like “diaper-headed sisters” and one of the players was “doing his hair with a bundle of firecrackers,” according to the costume. Zasowski’s contract as interim manager was not renewed by Rutgers after the 2014–15 season. He is now the boys’ basketball coach at Lincoln High School in Jersey City.
Zasowski did not respond to an email request for comment and hung up when a reporter contacted him by phone Monday. James O’Hara, the attorney representing him, did not respond to an email request for comment.
NJ Advance Media obtained a May 2015 investigative report from Rutgers in which Zasowski denied the charges when pressed by university investigators. The investigation was led by Nina Vij, Investigations and Resolution Specialist at Rutgers.
According to the state’s appeal ruling, Vij “ultimately reported that Zasowski “more likely than not” made comments about the “diaper-headed sisters,” the “firecracker,” and the “dyke,” but Zasowski and Rutgers had not thus created a hostile educational environment.”
Morris, the former Rutgers-Newark coach, was kicked out of the lawsuit two years ago because he is not part of a protected class, he says. But the case involving the former players is ongoing. The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensation for “emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, pain and suffering, and impaired capacity.” The case has been in settlement mediation for more than a year, according to court records. Barber declined to comment when asked how many players are looking for.
Morris said Monday that Rutgers made a $550,000 settlement offer, which was rejected in April 2018.
“Rutgers wouldn’t have offered us more than half a million dollars if they didn’t know they had a major problem,” he said.
Barber, who played soccer in the military, expressed outrage over the alleged abuse of college athletes.
” This is unacceptable. It’s degrading. It’s degrading. It’s sexist. It’s homophobic,” he said. “It’s everything you wouldn’t want your child to experience.”
Rutgers University officials did not say whether they plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Jane Rigby, the attorney representing Rutgers, did not respond to an email seeking comment.
“We are analyzing the decision and considering seeking further review,” Peter Englot, senior vice chancellor for public affairs and chief of staff to Rutgers-Newark president Nancy Cantor, said in a statement to NJ Advance Media. .
Barber said the lawsuit is unique because her clients fall into three protected categories — African American, lesbian and female.
“Rutgers argued that the court is supposed to look at each protected category and determine whether or not there is an allegation of gender discrimination, put it in a watertight basket, and if not, then see if there is. an allegation of sex discrimination, put it in its own basket, then see if there is a complaint of racial discrimination, and put it in its own basket,” he said.
“We argued that these were three separate protected features under the law. When you look at the nature of Zasowski’s conduct and that of others, they were attacking all three areas at different times.
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Keith Sargeant can be reached at [email protected].