A recent ruling from New Jersey’s Appellate Division allows members of the Rutger’s women’s basketball team to continue with their lawsuit under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”).
Sharee Gordon, Adayshia McKinnon, Jade Howard, Arianna Williams and Sarah Schwartz were students at Rutgers-Newark University and members of the women’s basketball team. Gordon, Howard and Williams each identify themselves as African-American lesbians; McKinnon identifies as Black and bisexual; and Schwartz identifies as Hispanic and heterosexual.
During the 2014-15 school year, the team’s head coach, Kevin Morris, was on a medical leave. When Gordon learned Rutgers was considering naming William Zasowski as the interim head coach, she raised concerns that he had used discriminatory language to refer to members of the men’s basketball team when he was its assistant coach. Specifically, she alleged he referred to members of the men’s team as “p*ssies,” “b*tches,” and “retard[s]” and asked if they were on their “period.” Rutgers nonetheless selected Zasowski as the interim head coach.
The following day, Howard sought a meeting to address the fact that the team’s Athletic Director, Mark Griffin, used profanity, ethnic and homophobic slurs, and “highly inappropriate comments … towards female athletes.” Rutgers opened a formal investigation about Griffen, but found no violation of its anti-discrimination policy. It did not investigate the concerns Gordon raised about Zasowski.
During a private meeting at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Zasowski asked Williams which members of the team were gay and who on the men’s team she was sleeping with. Williams refused to answer his questions.
At a practice, Zasowski told another player, Jasmine Lombard, that Lombard and Gordon are “nappy-headed sisters” who “comb their hair with firecrackers.” In a subsequent conversation with McKinnon, Zasowski called Howard and Gordon “d*kes.” At other times, Zasowski referred to male assistant coaches as “d*ckheads,” members of opposing teams “b*tches,” and a female referee a “c*nt” and a “b*tch.”
Gordon eventually spoke to Zasowski about many of his racist and homophobic remarks, but Zasowski denied making them. Later that day, McKinnon told Zasowski she told her teammates he called Howard and Gordon “d*kes.” In response, Zasowski called McKinnon a liar and told her to take off her jersey because she was no longer a member of the team. Zasowski subsequently told Griffin that “McKinnon had to go.” The following day, Zasowski told the team his character had been attacked, and warned them that they were “not required to play.”
After that, Zasowski substantially reduced Gordon’s playing time. After a loss, Zasowski gave Griffin the choice to either cut Gordon from the team or end the team’s season. Prior to a playoff game, Zasowski had someone remove Gordon’s jersey so she could not play. On the day of another subsequent playoff game, he tried to bar Gordon from getting on the team bus until she agreed not to play. In addition, Zasowski canceled at least one team practice.
In their lawsuit, Gordon, McKinnon, Howard, Williams and Schwartz claim Rutgers and Zasokwsi created a hostile educational environment and discriminated and retaliated against them in violation of the LAD. Several years into the case, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial judge granted the motion with respect to the retaliation claims, but denied it regarding the harassment and discrimination claims. Both sides appealed.
On June 2, 2022, in Morris v. Rutgers-Newark University, the Appellate Division ruled that the teammates can continue with all of their claims. With respect to the harassment claims, it recognized courts must review harassment as a whole, rather than looking at each act separately. It noted that, since the women’s basketball team is a “tight-knit group,” each player can rely on harassment directed at her teammates to show how it contributed to making her own environment hostile. In other words, it concluded that under the circumstances it is “reasonable and logical for those who have allegedly created a hostile environment to understand that attacking one was to attack all.”
Similarly, the Appellate Division rejected Rutgers’ argument that it should analyze the racial, sexual orientation and gender harassment claims separately. Rather, the court ruled the defendants are not entitled to have their “venomous comments watered down” by placing them “in separate, watertight categories.”
Likewise, the appellate court concluded that each of the team members can continue with her retaliation claim, whether or not she personally objected to the harassment and discrimination. It explained that reducing Gordon and McKinnon’s playing time and canceling a practice had a negative impact on the entire team, and are the types of actions that could discourage others from objecting to unlawful harassment or discrimination in the future, and thus can be legally-actionable retaliation against each of team members.