GFU faces $70 million lawsuit
A one-time George Fox University football player has filed a federal civil complaint against the school, several coaches and university employees, a former teammate, as well as Providence Medical Group and a doctor based out of Providence Newberg Medical Center.
Samuel Wani, who joined the team for preseason practices in August, 2015, filed the suit himself, without the assistance of an attorney, in United States District Court in Portland in June.
The suit makes a bevy of allegations, specifically via six legal claims, which include charges of cyber bullying, racial verbal harassment, negligence, refusal of treatment, medical fraud, racial discrimination, HIPAA violations and breach of contract. All of the claims appear to stem from two incidents and George Fox's subsequent handling of them, which ultimately led Wani to leave the school just a few weeks after arriving.
According to the complaint, the first incident arose when Wani injured his thumb during practice on Aug. 20, 2015, and sought treatment from head football athletic trainer Gregg Boughton, one of 11 defendants named in the suit.
Wani, who came to the United States as a teenage refugee from Sudan and settled in Washington, reports telling Boughton that he believed he had broken his thumb and that he needed to see a doctor, but was told that it was "just jammed" and to "give it a few days."
Wani claims that head coach Chris Casey had given orders to the team that no one was to be dismissed from practice to see a doctor without approval from himself or Boughton.
"He stated that we (the players) didn't know the difference between a 'boo boo' and an injury and that we were faking injuries to skip practice," Wani writes in his legal filing.
After the pain in his hand worsened over the course of a few days, Wani says he saw Boughton again and requested to see a doctor. He was denied once more, as well as a third time a few days later, when Boughton told him that he "needed to suck it up and play through it, it's football, I'm going to need to play through it."
After the third denial, Wani submitted that he went to have an X-ray taken at Providence Newberg Medical Center and that the results showed a fracture and major swelling of the metacarpophalangeal (MP) joint in his thumb. He reports subsequently being put in a cast, thus ending his football season.
By that time, Wani had also been made the target of a cyberbullying incident by teammate Dominic Fix-Gonzales, who created and posted two images on Instagram in reference to Wani, one of which juxtaposed a head shot of Wani with photo of a mop head, ostensibly as a reference to his dreadlocks.
Wani claimed, both in reporting the incident to George Fox and in naming Fix-Gonzales as a defendant in his civil suit, that the act was racially motivated, citing that the head shot photo had been altered to significantly darken his skin. Wani reported to George Fox that Fix-Gonzales — who identifies himself as black according to GFU officials — had been asked by a teammate about why he had made Wani "so black," and responded that "I had to give him that extra Vitamin D, make him extra crispy."
According to documents submitted by Wani, he was interviewed by associate dean of students Dave Johnstone on Sept. 4 about both his injury issue and the cyberbullying, with university employee Sarah Taylor also present to take notes.
Wani also filed a letter sent from dean of students Mark Pothoff informing him of the findings of the investigation. The school concluded that the Instagram pictures did constitute cyberbullying because of the "demeaning and embarrassing environment they created" for Wani, but could not establish that the motivation had been racial because there "was no confirmation or witnesses to statements Dominick allegedly said regarding the posts, nor any alterations of the photos beyond being zoomed in."
The letter also detailed the punitive and corrective measures the university would take in regards to Fix-Gonzales, who was then entering his sophomore season after starting nine games at linebacker in 2014, but the suit indicates that they did not satisfy Wani because they fell short of expulsion or suspension.
Wani told Johnstone that he was disappointed by Casey's response to the incident when they met in person a day later, which was, in a general sense, that things like that will be said and that Wani needed to get over it.
"I've been on plenty of teams and haven't had this," Wani told Johnstone. "It's just one of those things that you don't do."
Wani also alleges in the lawsuit that Casey did not report the incident to school officials in a timely manner and in discussions with Johnstone he expressed frustration that because university officials did not take action more quickly, players simply shrugged it off as well.
In the letter to Wani, Pothoff explained that executive vice president and chief operating officer Ted Allen reviewed and assessed that concern. Allen found that while the coaches did take actions (some of which Wani may not have been aware), he did implement several changes as a result of his review. The most significant of those appears to be that coaches would from then on be required to involve university Student Life officials and the Title IX coordinator "within a reasonable timeframe regarding any type of incident where there may be harassment, bias or discrimination to any degree."
Most of the remaining charges in the lawsuit stem from George Fox's handling of Wani's injury, including the school's investigation into his claims against Boughton and its consultation with Providence orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas Croy about the injury and subsequent refusal to treat it or pay for it to be treated.
In the explanation letter, Pothoff confirmed that Boughton did examine Wani's thumb, but that it "appeared to be a strain." The investigation found that Boughton claims that Wani never "asked him about an X-ray" and that it would not have been a problem, though Wani's claims are that he requested to see a doctor.
"(Boughton) has never denied anyone the ability to seek additional medical treatment and he would have no authority to do so," the letter states.
The letter continues on to state that Boughton followed university protocol in consulting with Dr. Croy, who "had reviewed the X-ray, and your thumb, and also came to the conclusion that it was not broken."
Wani counters that evaluation with documentation of the initial visit to Providence, but also X-rays from doctors who subsequently treated him and ultimately performed surgery on his thumb.
Wani was unable to have his surgery until fall 2016, over a year later, during which time he suffered significant physical pain. Wani also claims the surgeon had to remove his Palmaris longus tendon and "fully reconstruct my thumb," with one of the repercussions being the end of his football career, along with the inability to work as a physical trainer for 16 months.
The lawsuit goes on to accuse Boughton, Taylor and Dr. Croy of medical fraud, alleging they covered up his injury and falsified medical records so that George Fox would not have to pay for his treatment.
During the 13 months before Wani got his surgery, he claims to have kept George Fox up to date with the medical information that proved his injury was real and continually requested that the school pay for his surgery, which he could not afford to pay for himself. This was mainly done through communication with athletic director Craig Taylor, who Wani also accuses of taunting him for his injury.
"He told me to get over it, they are not going to pay for anything and there is nothing I can do about it," Wani wrote in his complaint. "He threatened me with 'how they have the best lawyers in the world and they can make this incident disappear.'"
Wani is seeking more than $70 million in damages, including $40 million plus medical expenses from George Fox, claiming "this is the amount of money I would be making in a six- to eight-year NFL career as a defensive end or linebacker."
There appears to be no record that Wani, who was 23 when he arrived at GFU, has ever made the roster of any college football team, but his interview with Johnstone mentions a recommendation letter that was written for him by the quarterback coach at Eastern Washington and that he also looked into playing at Washington State, Eastern Oregon and Linfield before deciding on George Fox.
The suit also seeks $30 million from Croy and Providence Medical Group, as well as $89,600 in lost wages as a physical trainer over 16 months and $36,000 in living expenses since his injury.
George Fox released a statement July 7 stating that it is not in a position to comment generally on Wani's allegations or the pending litigation, but confirms some of the basic facts about his time at the school. It also indicates Wani was previously a student at Eastern Washington University, which lists him as a honors graduate in psychology (cum laude) as of June 17.
"University Student Life staff, athletic department staff, coaches and medical providers spent extensive time with Mr. Wani during his short attendance attempting to understand and address his concerns," the statement from GFU read. "Until this lawsuit, university staff believed they had adequately addressed Mr. Wani's concerns. The university condemns all forms of cyberbullying and racial discrimination, which have no place in the George Fox community."
A representative from Providence indicated that it will not comment on pending litigation.