Federal court revives former tennis player’s racial discrimination suit against University

The lawsuit alleges Stafford and other non-white players faced years of racism, including frequent racist slurs, harassment and harsher punishment from coaches for minor infractions.

A federal appeals court Friday revived a former tennis player’s lawsuit against GW alleging racial discrimination from coaches and teammates after the court ruled a lower judge wrongly dismissed the case earlier in January.

Jabari Stafford – a former men’s tennis player – filed the lawsuit in 2018 accusing officials of failing to properly address a racist and discriminatory environment fostered by players and coaches during Stafford’s time as a player. A D.C. District Court judge struck the lawsuit down in January, saying Stafford filed the lawsuit too late, in violation of a one-year statute of limitations under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

A panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled the District Court judge incorrectly used the one-year statute of limitations under the human rights law to dismiss the case, saying a three-year statute of limitations under personal injury law applied to Stafford’s lawsuit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision, a victory for Stafford, means the case will return to the D.C. District Court and litigation will resume.

The lawsuit alleges Stafford and other non-white players faced years of racism, including frequent racist slurs, harassment and harsher punishment from coaches for minor infractions.

“They asked him if his ancestors were slaves, how he could be Black and have money and told him he belonged in Black neighborhoods,” this year’s appeal from Stafford reads. “They plotted to goad him into lashing out so that they could secretly record him and then use the recording to have him kicked off the team.”

U.S. Court of Appeals Senior Judge David Tatel, who wrote the court’s decision, said the court used Supreme Court precedent to determine that officials’ alleged discrimination – which they say falls under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans racial discrimination by institutions which receive federal funds – are like “an injury to the individual rights of the person.” The judges decided the Supreme Court precedents show Title VI cases are most similar to personal injury cases with three-year statutes of limitations, rather than the D.C. Human Rights Act’s one-year statute.

After D.C. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper dismissed the lawsuit earlier this year, Tom Stafford – Jabari’s father – said in an interview with The Hatchet that he was “very confident” in their ability to successfully appeal the dismissal.

The University denied claims that officials mistreated Stafford based on “the color of his skin” in a 2019 filing, which stated officials treated him “fairly and lawfully.” But Cooper said the University was “wise” when it didn’t deny that Stafford faced “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” abuse while on the tennis team.

A University spokesperson was not immediately available for comment. University spokesperson Tim Pierce declined to comment on Stafford’s appeal earlier this year.

Attorneys for Stafford were not immediately available for comment.

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