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Stafford v. George Washington University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 5, 2019




         Jabari Stafford alleges that he was the victim of racial discrimination during his time as a walk-on tennis player at George Washington University. He brings a bevy of federal- and D.C.-law claims against the University, two of his former coaches, and two administrators in the athletics department. One of the individual Defendants, Associate Athletics Director Nicole Early, and the University (together, “GWU” or “the University”) have moved to dismiss all of Stafford's claims. Stafford opposes dismissal and also seeks leave to amend his complaint. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part GWU's motion to dismiss and will grant in part and deny in part Stafford's motion for leave to file an amended complaint.

         I. Background

         A. Factual History

         As required on a motion to dismiss, the Court draws this factual background from the complaint, “assum[ing] the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations.” Sissel v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014). The facts presented here are taken almost exclusively from the proposed amended complaint, although at times the Court draws from the original complaint-in particular where it appears that Stafford has deleted facts that may have been unfavorable to him. See Hourani v. Mirtchev, 943 F.Supp.2d 159, 171 (D.D.C. 2013) (stating that a plaintiff “may not plead facts in their amended complaint that contradict those in their original complaint” nor can a plaintiff “blatantly change[ ] his statement of facts in order to respond to” a motion to dismiss (internal quotation marks omitted)). The Defendants strenuously contest many of the facts Stafford alleges.

         Mr. Stafford, who is African-American, attended George Washington University (“GWU”) from September 2014 until December 2017. Proposed Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”), ECF No. 11-6, ¶ 4. Stafford chose to attend GWU after meeting with its then tennis coach Gregory Munoz and members of GWU's administration. Id. ¶¶ 18, 21. He joined the GWU tennis team in September 2014, “two weeks into the Fall season.” Id. ¶ 25. He was one of two African Americans and one of three players of color (the other a Persian American) on the nine-person roster. Id.

         Shortly after joining the team, Stafford alleges that he began to observe and experience racist treatment. Id. ¶¶ 26-29. One week in, Munoz convened Stafford and the other players of color-who together were the only American players on the team-and threatened to punish them if they “did not get off to a good start.” Id. ¶ 26. Soon thereafter, Stafford says Munoz announced that he “hate[d] Americans” and “subjected [non-white players] to constant threats which even included emails only directed to them and no one else on the team.” Id. ¶ 28. Stafford says he also witnessed early on Munoz and an assistant coach “bull[y]” and “belittle” his Persian-American teammate. Id. ¶ 29. This teammate, Stafford says, “was kicked off the team the first week of his sophomore year for unknown reasons.” Id. ¶ 30.

         Also “in or around September 2014, ” Stafford maintains the same assistant coach told him and the team “a story about a Black tennis player . . . whom [the coach] and his teammates in college would verbally and physically abuse because he was black, ” including by calling him racial epithets and remarking on how dark his skin was. Id. ¶ 31. Stafford also heard from his teammate that the same assistant coach had once caused the team van to crash, and Stafford claims that the coach was such a “careless” driver that he “became very frightened every time he got into the vehicle after hearing the news.” Id. ¶ 32.

         Though a time period is not specified, [1] Stafford says that his “white teammates would often post racially insensitive jokes and rhetoric on social media.” Id. ¶ 33. Stafford recounts one incident that occurred his freshman year-so either the fall of 2014 or the spring of 2015-in which a teammate posted a “racist picture on Facebook . . . of a black version of [the cartoon character] Spongebob that read, “Watch Black Spongebob on Niggalodeon.” Id. Stafford alleges that the head coach, Munoz, “was aware of these racist postings because he was Facebook friends with the tennis players and told the players that he monitored social media postings[.]” Id. Stafford claims that events like these “eviscerated [his] desire to participate in team activities and caused him to try to limit his interactions with his teammates as much as possible.” Id. ¶ 35.

         “In other instances, later in [his] tenure, ” Stafford says “various players would often make racist comments in the team group chats.” Id. ¶ 34. One teammate, whom Stafford names as a defendant in the proposed amended complaint, purportedly “referred to a black person as a gorilla and referred to black poetry as ‘black shitty poetry.'” Id. Other teammates, Stafford alleges, “would often throw racial slurs in the group chat . . . when Plaintiff was excluded from [it].” Id.

         Once, in January 2015, Stafford confronted a teammate who he says used a racial slur while traveling to practice, and Munoz “chastised [Stafford]” for doing so. Id. ¶ 36. Stafford was suspended from the team a week later. Id. ¶ 37. In the amended complaint, Stafford says Munoz justified the suspension on the grounds that Stafford had been “disrespectful to his teammates, ” “had anger control issues, as well as profanity issues, ” and “was selfish” and did not support his teammates. Id. Stafford says these claims came out of left field, and that Munoz had only once before expressed disapproval of his behavior-namely, when Stafford reprimanded his teammate for using a racial slur. Id. ¶ 38. In the original complaint, however, Stafford said Munoz offered other, additional reasons for the suspension-including that Stafford “did not show pride in the University” and “disrespected the tennis director” at the team's practice facility. Compl. ¶ 25.

         Stafford and his father thereafter requested a meeting with then Athletics Director Patrick Nero to challenge his suspension. Am. Compl. ¶ 41. Although Nero declined the request, Stafford and his father did meet with Munoz and Associate Athletics Director Early. Id. ¶ 42. At that meeting, Stafford says Munoz “falsely denied the existence of any racial animus and repeated the ‘anger control' and ‘disrespecting teammates' pretexts from the aforementioned January 18, 2015 [suspension] email.” Id. Stafford apparently asked to be reinstated at the meeting, but Early “did not order reinstatement of [Stafford], leaving the issue of whether, or not, [he] would get reinstated from the suspension entirely to the discretion of Defendant Munoz.” Id. ¶ 43. Stafford maintains that this “grossly improper and unjustified suspension, ” caused him to become “depressed and withdrawn, which adversely affected his ability to perform academically.” Id. ¶ 49.

         While his suspension remained in effect, Munoz allegedly “presented [Stafford] with an ultimatum”: become a member of a “white fraternity” to prove his social skills had improved or face continued suspension. Id. ¶ 51. Despite having no interest in joining the fraternity, Stafford went through recruitment and received a bid to pledge the house. Id. ¶ 52. Munoz then added two further conditions to his reinstatement. Stafford would have to apologize to his teammates for his “purported disrespectful conduct towards them” and his teammates would have to agree to lifting his suspension. Id. ¶ 53. Having to “apologize to his teammates was extremely difficult and humiliating for [Stafford] especially because he had not done anything wrong to any of his teammates and coaches who had used racial slurs and never suffered any consequences as a result of their discriminatory actions.” Id. ¶ 54.

         Stafford's “hard efforts” nevertheless paid off, and he was reinstated after about a month-long suspension. Id. ¶ 55. According to Stafford, though, the “verbal abuse and discriminatory treatment” picked up where it left off. Id. Even worse, it escalated. One representative example, Stafford alleges, was when a teammate asked him, “Were all of your ancestors' slaves at one point?” Id. ¶ 59. Stafford also observed “serious racquet and verbal abuse from various players on the team, ” id. ¶ 62, and yet, he says, they were never “disciplined for [their] disruptive and disrespectful behavior, ” id. ¶ 61.

         Later in his freshman spring season, “[i]n or around March 2015, ” Stafford says a teammate yelled at him to “Get off the court, monkey!” Id. ¶ 64. Stafford alleges that Munoz overheard the remark but did nothing about it, and that he feared retribution by Munoz if he spoke up. Id. Then, in April 2015, during a training trip to Florida, Stafford says a teammate yelled “N****R!” so loud that Stafford's teammates in the adjoining hotel rooms could hear it. Id. ¶ 65. Again, Stafford says he was worried that Munoz would accuse him of being an angry teammate if he attempted to confront the racial abuse. Id. Harassment like this, carried out by nearly all of Stafford's teammates, continued throughout the spring 2015 season. See id. ¶¶ 66- 69. Stafford claims the abuse caused him to “suffer[ ] from anxiety, extreme depression and severe mental anguish” and “adversely affected his academic performance, ” culminating in a sub-2.0 grade point average. Id. ¶ 71.

         The mistreatment continued in the fall 2015 season of his sophomore year, Stafford says. He was reprimanded by an assistant coach for yelling in celebration after winning a match. Id. ¶ 77. His teammates allegedly piled on, telling Stafford they were cheering for him to lose the match-and yet they faced no discipline from the coaching staff. Id. ¶ 79.

         The intra-team squabbling came to a head at the beginning of the spring 2016 season, when Stafford and a teammate got into a shouting match and “approached each other in a confrontational manner.” Id. ¶ 81. Munoz allegedly “separated the players by grabbing [Stafford] and physically removing him from the area, ” at which point he told Stafford he would “kick him off the team.” Id. ¶ 82. Asked why, Munoz allegedly gave various reasons, including that Stafford did not greet him in the morning, that Stafford thought he was too good looking, and that Stafford was more interested in his fraternity than in the team. Id. When Stafford told Munoz that “all the racism on the team” made him feel “extremely uncomfortable, ” Munoz apparently responded flatly that there was no racism on the team-and then asked Stafford “whether he liked Donald Trump.” Id.

         Stafford recounts other examples of the “repeated[ ] harass[ment]” he faced throughout his sophomore season, spanning 2015 to 2016. He tells of a time when a white teammate asked him “how it was possible that [Stafford] was Black and that he had money, as if the two were mutually incompatible.” Id. ¶ 83. He also says that his teammates on numerous occasions made racially stereotypical references to his genitals. Id. In addition to these episodes, Stafford says the coaching staff gave him poor slots in the lineup, or did not play him at all, for no legitimate reason. See id. ¶¶ 84-87.

         In March 2016, Stafford says he again approached members of the GWU athletics department, namely Early, to discuss “the racist mistreatment he was subjected to and the lack of playing time.” Id. ¶ 87. Early arranged a meeting with Stafford and an assistant coach-by this time Munoz was no longer the team's head coach-at which the assistant coach said Stafford did not play much because he hit the ball too hard, was undisciplined, and was not a team player. Id. ¶ 88. Stafford denies all these allegations as “pretext for his marginalization.” Id. When Stafford's father on various occasions tried to follow up with Early, she “mostly refused to communicate with him.” Id. ¶ 89.

         The fall 2016 season, Stafford's junior year, saw a new head coach, David Macpherson, take the reins. “Unfortunately for [Stafford, ]” he says, “the rolling snowball that had started early in his freshman year had by now escalated into a veritable avalanche of racism[.]” Id. ¶ 92. Stafford realized at the beginning of the school year that he was not receiving team communications, id. ¶ 93, and he soon learned from Macpherson the reason why: he was no longer a member of the team, id. ¶ 94. Searching for an explanation, Stafford's father attempted to meet with the athletics department, which refused his request for a meeting. Id. ¶ 95.

         Stafford and his father did ultimately meet with a vice provost at the University and an athletics department representative. Id. ¶ 96. After they “talked about all of the overt racism, the violation of various policies and procedures, the defamation of character and the emotional distress and severe mental anguish” Stafford was suffering, Stafford says the school officials “were mortified” and “confused with why nothing was being done and why [Stafford] was such an enormous target.” Id. They also told Stafford that he was still on the team and could not be removed from the team without having signed a waiver to that effect. Id.

         Macpherson, however, did not budge-at least not right away. He instead set up a tryout for Stafford, through which he could earn his way back on the team. Id. ¶ 97. Stafford, although frustrated with having to go through this process, apparently did well enough to earn his reinstatement. Id. ¶ 98. Stafford's reinstatement came over his teammates' protestations. He says that in a private text message from Macpherson to one team member-which was later shared in a “private teammate group chat” that Stafford was not a part of-Macpherson acknowledged the team's “opinion” of Stafford, but said that Stafford “showed a lot of potential” and had the ability to “become a dangerous player.” Id. ¶ 101.

         Now back on the team, Stafford says his teammates “worked on a plan to provoke” him by “making racist statements, in hope that [Stafford] would get into a physical altercation or do something that would get him kicked off of the team.” Id. ¶ 100. He alleges, for example, that as soon as his teammates got word of his reinstatement, they arranged a meeting through a group chat to “coordinate their attacks and kick their racial hatred and harassment into high-gear to try and undermine [Stafford's] reinstatement.” Id. ¶ 103. One teammate continued to say that he was perplexed by the combination of Stafford's race and the fact that he “had money.” Id. ¶ 104. The same teammate would also yell the n-word when it was said in a rap song to which the team was listening. Id. Stafford continued to feel that “he could not do anything about this racist treatment because of the risk that he would be thrown off the team again.” Id.

         At some unspecified time-apparently in the spring of 2017-Stafford played a practice match to determine his position in the team's lineup. Id. ¶ 106. His opponent “started taunting [him] and trying to provoke him so he would react aggressively and ruin his chances.” Id. Stafford ultimately “lost the match due to the constant bickering and taunting, ” and then yelled at the assistant coach for not intervening. Id. When Macpherson heard of the episode, he called Stafford, at which point Stafford says he “told Macpherson about all of the conspiracies, racial discrimination and defamation of [his] character.” Id. Macpherson allegedly told Stafford that he would “try to be more aware of these things” and would “ultimately handle everything.” Id. Macpherson later emailed Stafford to inform him that he would be suspended for the next practice. Id. Stafford says no one else was ever punished. Id. Stafford maintains that the suspension and the “stronger, more intense high-gear harassment devastated [his] spirit and undermined his ability to perform academically, ” causing his Spring 2017 grade point average to fall below 2.0. Id. ¶ 107.

         The “high-gear hatred and harassment” purportedly continued in the fall of 2017, Stafford's senior year. Id. ¶ 108. An Indian teammate told him that another teammate had called Stafford a “cotton picking n****r, ” and asked him to record Stafford “doing or saying something negative” to get him kicked off the team. Id. The Indian teammate also reported to Stafford that he “had been sexually harassed and assaulted by” another teammate on multiple occasions. Id. ¶110. Stafford says the coaching staff ignored these issues when they were brought to their attention. Id. Stafford also alleges that around this time his family “was verbally attacked and harassed” by an unidentified GWU employee. Id. GWU's alleged failure to adequately address issues like these, Stafford insists, caused him to “suffer severe anguish and distress, ” culminating in yet another sub-2.0 grade point average for the fall 2017 semester. Id. ¶ 112.

         Because Stafford had compiled a sub-2.0 GPA in two consecutive semesters, and three semesters overall, the University suspended him in January 2018. Id. ¶ 113. When Stafford met with an academic advisor to prepare an appeal of his suspension, the advisor “was insistent that the appeal should only contain contrite acceptance of personal responsibility” rather than discuss the “trauma caused by the racially hostile atmosphere” that Stafford mentioned to her. Id. ¶ 114. The University denied Stafford's appeal. Id. ¶ 115.

         B. Procedural History

         Stafford filed suit on November 26, 2018, naming as defendants the University, Nero, Early, Munoz, Macpherson, and “John Does 1-10, ” ostensibly various of Stafford's teammates. He brought six claims: Count I alleges all Defendants discriminated against him on the basis of race in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”) D.C. Code Ann. § 2.1401.01 et seq.; Count II alleges the same in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d; Count III alleges the same in violation of Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991; Count IV alleges a breach of contract claim against only the University; Count V alleges negligent infliction of emotional distress against all Defendants; and Count VI alleges negligent retention against only the University. Compl. ¶¶ 95-134.

         GWU and Early moved to dismiss the complaint in its entirety on January 22, 2019. See ECF No. 4. Stafford responded on March 17, 2019 by filing a combined motion for leave to amend his complaint and “response to Defendant's motion for dismissal of complaint.” See ECF No. 10. In his proposed amended complaint, Stafford names a teammate as a defendant, but does not otherwise add to or subtract any of the six claims in his original complaint. See ECF No. 11-6 (red-lined copy of proposed amended complaint). GWU and Early opposed Stafford's motion for leave to amend his complaint, and the matter is now ripe for the Court's resolution.

         II. Legal Standards

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a) gives courts discretion whether to grant leave to amend a complaint. Leave “should be freely given in the absence of undue delay, bad faith, undue prejudice to the opposing party, repeated failures to cure deficiencies, or futility.” Richardson v. United States, 193 F.3d 545, 548-49 (D.C. Cir. 1999). A proposed amended complaint is futile if it would not survive a motion to dismiss. When making that assessment, courts apply the same standards as they would to review such a motion. See In re Interbank Funding Corp. Sec. Litig., 629 F.3d 213, 215-16 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         The standard applicable here is Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). “To survive a motion to dismiss [under 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). A court need not, however, accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff that are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must a court accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions. See Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

         “A [complaint] filed pro se is to be liberally construed[, ] and a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Abdelfattah v. U.S. Dep't of Homeland Sec., 787 F.3d 524, 533 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).[2] “Even still, a pro se complaint ‘must plead factual matter that permits the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.'” Id. (quoting Jones v. Horne, 634 F.3d 588, 596 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Taking these legal standards together, then, the Court will ask whether Stafford, assuming the truth of the allegations in his proposed amended complaint, has stated a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. If he has not, leave to file the amended complaint will be denied as futile, and the case will be dismissed.

         III. Analysis

         As an initial matter, GWU contends the whole complaint should be dismissed due to Stafford's “shotgun” style of pleading, referencing the complaint's practice of incorporating by reference all preceding paragraphs and counts of the complaint. Memorandum in Support of Defendants George Washington University and Nicole Early's Motion to Dismiss (“MTD”), ECF No. 4-1, at 6. This pleading practice, GWU says, makes it impossible to tell which factual allegations Stafford uses to support a particular legal claim. Id Although the Court grants that the complaint is hardly a picture of clarity, it is important to note that Stafford is proceeding pro se, and that he therefore warrants a bit more leeway in his attempt to comply with federal court pleading standards than would a represented litigant. At any rate, as will follow, other grounds for dismissal exist, making it unnecessary to decide the motion to dismiss on this ground.

         A. Counts I and II: DCHRA and Title VI Claims

         With respect to the DCHRA and Title VI discrimination claims, Compl. ¶¶ 95-104; Am. Compl ¶¶ 121-131, GWU contends that Stafford has failed to state a claim under which relief can be granted, MTD at 7; see Fed.R.Civ.P. ...

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