Thema Williams’ first legal bout with the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation (TTGF) and its current and past officials David Marquez, Akil Wattley, Ricardo Lue Shue and his wife Donna Lue Shue ended with a resounding victory this morning, as Justice Frank Seepersad decided that the 21-year-old gymnast had a right to be heard in the local High Court.
Seepersad also ruled that the four sport administrators must pay costs—certified fit for Senior Counsel—to Williams’ legal team for their unsuccessful attempt to block the gymnast.
“There is, therefore, a very evident public interest and concern in this matter,” stated Seepersad, in his judgment, “and the selection process for representation at the Olympics is an issue that extends beyond the insular concerns of the parties to this matter and is one in which every citizen has a vested interest.”
Williams is represented by advocate attorney Keith Scotland, instructing attorney Reza Ramjohn and Martin Daly SC. Attorney Justin Junkere represented the TTGF while Marquez, Wattley and the Lue Shues were defended by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj SC and Ronnie Bissessar.
The gymnastics body and officials sought to stay Williams’ TT$11.3 million court case against them and instead have the matter sent to their own arbitration body. The gymnast was suing the TTGF and the four officials for controversially removing her from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in favour of Canada-born gymnast Marisa Dick.
Williams, said a source close to her legal team, was figuratively dragged away from Rio like Dr David Dao—the American passenger of Asian descent who was controversially and violently removed from a United Airlines flight earlier this month.
The quip, according to the source, was intentionally meant to mirror a recent comment by Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis, who compared the two controversies in a recent interview with Wired868.
“Team Thema” have still not forgiven Lewis and the TTOC for allowing the local gymnastics body to give Williams’ spot in Rio to Dick.
In court today, Seepersad ruled comprehensively in favour of the young gymnast.
The gymnastics body argued that their agreement with Williams and Dick included an arbitration clause, which ought to be adhered to. It reads:
“All disputes arising out of or connected with this agreement are subject to resolution exclusively through the procedures set forth in the TTGF by-laws and/or, if appropriate, through the grievance procedures of the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee.”
Junkere asked Seepersad to instruct Williams to adhere to the provisions of this clause, even though the TTGF itself ignored the gymnast’s request for arbitration when she was de-accredited—just hours before the Rio Test Event on 17 April 2016.
However, Seepersad was not comfortable with the wording of the TTGF’s dispute resolution provision and concerned as to whether it could provide Williams with a fair hearing.
“Having read the said Bye-laws, the Court formed the view that they do not adequately outline the processes or procedures to be adopted in relation to grievance procedures,” stated Seepersad. “[…] The Court also reviewed the Athlete Agreement and it does not outline any definitive and clear processes for the resolution of grievances as those outlined by the Claimant in her Statement of Case.”
As such, Seepersad declared that the TTGF’s arbitration clause was unenforceable and went further to describe the gymnastic body’s constitution as “very limited in its scope.”
Further, Seepersad noted that the accusation of collusion and conspiring to deny Williams her place at the Rio Olympics could not be adequately addressed via dispute resolution.
“Given the nature of [Williams’] complaints, the Court has deep rooted concerns as to whether any dispute resolution process as outlined by [the TTGF] would be fair, independent and impartial… When one considers the formation of the disciplinary committee as established under the [TTGF’s] constitution, legitimate concerns as to the impartiality and independence of the said committee to resolve the particular and unique complaints, as advanced by [Williams], can arise.”
And, just as important, Seepersad said that Williams case was a “matter of national importance […] that extends beyond the insular concerns of the parties to this matter and is one in which every citizen has a vested interest.”
“Given the unprecedented levels of crime and general sense of unease that confronts this nation, sports and the participation by athletes in international events install a much needed sense of national pride and is one of the few avenues by which the flames are fanned.
“Due to the pursuit of insular concerns, a prevailing sense of selfishness and complacency is very evident in this society and, as a consequence, mediocrity is often rewarded.
“This society is too blessed and has extensive unrealised talent for such a state of affairs to continue. There is a need to disregard bias, ethnic, and/or political agendas and there should be a resolve to ensure that only those who are most deserving are entrusted with the responsibility to make decisions and to represent us in all areas of national life.”
The case was adjourned to 15 May 2017 when there will be a case management conference for all parties.