Tennis Hopeful’s Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Against USTA Can Proceed

Apr 5, 2024

By Gary Chester, Senior Writer

The trajectory of professional tennis player Kylie McKenzie took a standard path until it didn’t. Her parents placed a racquet in her hand at age four and eventually home-schooled her in Arizona so she could spend more time learning the game. She trained in several United States Tennis Association (USTA) programs from ages 12 to 19, including full-time training at the organization’s national campus in Lake Nona, Florida.

During a practice session on November 9, 2018 at a time when no one else was around, USTA coach Anibal Aranda, reserved a secluded court that he knew lacked working cameras and allegedly sat next to McKenzie on a courtside bench, placed his hand on her thigh, then slide his hand onto her groin and started rubbing her vagina over her clothes. McKenzie was 19 years old. Aranda was 34.

In 2022, McKenzie sued the USTA for negligent retention and supervision, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and punitive damages. For the case, McKenzie v. USTA, 2024 WL665102 (M.D. Fla. February 16, 2024), the court considered the litigants’ motions for summary judgment.

The USTA Finds There Was Sexual Misconduct

When McKenzie achieved her first significant title in the U.S. National Hard Court competition at age 15, she was already a product of USTA instruction. When she was 12, McKenzie accepted a USTA coach’s invitation to train full-time at the organization’s facility in California, where she spent several years away from her family. She received financial grants from the USTA and was one of the few prospects to receive an invitation to train full-time in Florida, where she worked and traveled with USTA national coaches while at times lived in USTA dorms.

The USTA hired Aranda to train young tennis players part-time in 2012 before promoting him to full-time coach in 2014. Background checks on Aranda came up clear. Aranda took over McKenzie’s training in October 2018 when the coach she had trained with since 2016 left for a few weeks with another player he was coaching. Aranda expressed interest in becoming McKenzie’s full-time coach, which delighted the young player because Aranda had successfully trained her friend, Cici Bellis, who in 2017 was ranked number 35 in the world.

The lawsuit alleges that Aranda almost immediately began to make inappropriate comments about McKenzie’s body, which escalated to unnecessary touching of her stomach, hips, and back during coaching sessions. During the incident in issue, Aranda allegedly started to massage McKenzie’s calves and asked her “what she wanted him to be.” When she told Aranda she wanted him only “to be her tennis coach,” it seemed to anger him.

McKenzie revealed the incident to Bellis, and the pair called the USTA Manager of Player Development, Events, and Programming, who relayed the information to her superiors. The USTA immediately suspended Aranda’s employment and reported his misconduct to the national center, which undertook an investigation. The USTA concluded that Aranda engaged in sexual misconduct with McKenzie. A significant finding was that Aranda was involved in a similar incident four years earlier.

In 2014, Aranda was in New York City for a U.S. Open event. The investigation revealed that he had touched a USTA employee (“Jane Doe”) in a manner similar to the later incident with McKenzie during a night out with colleagues on the night before the event. The employee did not report the incident, even after receiving a promotion to Manager of Player Development, Events, and Programming.

Did the USTA Have Notice that Aranda was Unfit to Coach?

The USTA and two related defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on their lack of awareness of any propensity of Coach Aranda for sexual misconduct. McKenzie moved for partial summary judgment asking the court to find as a matter of law that a “special relationship” created an affirmative duty of care on the defendants.

Judge Paul G. Bryon denied the defendants’ motion and granted the plaintiff’s application. The key issue on the fundamental claim of negligent retention/supervision was whether the unreported incident involving Aranda in 2014 could provide actual or constructive notice to the USTA that he was unfit to coach young women unmonitored. Doe was in a managerial position, so there was a genuine issue of material fact as to her specific role and duties. The defendants held Doe out as an expert on mentorship of athletes, providing her as a keynote speaker. The court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that “Jane Doe served in a position where her knowledge of her own assault could constitute notice or reason to know for Defendants.”

The court also noted that a reasonable jury could find that Doe’s decision not to take any action in light of her encounter with Aranda was unreasonable, and that the prior incident made the incident involving McKenzie a foreseeable risk.

 As to battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the court recognized that employers are not generally liable for the criminal or tortious acts of their employees “unless the acts were committed during the course of the employment and to further a purpose or interest, however excessive or misguided, of the employer.” Judge Bryon found that a reasonable jury could find that Aranda was aided in accomplishing the torts by virtue of his position, since he was able to decide the time and court on which McKenzie would train with him.

Did the USTA Owe a Duty to McKenzie?

On the final count sounding in negligence, the USTA would normally not have a legal duty to take precautions against criminal acts of third parties. An exception exists when there exists a special relationship between the defendant and the person whose behavior needs to be controlled or the person who is a foreseeable victim of that conduct. McKenzie argued that the relationship between the defendants and young players, who USTA officials recruit to leave home and train with USTA coaches at USTA facilities, is the same as the special relationship to which a university’s duty to its adult students arises thus, creating an affirmative duty to protect players in its training program from sexual assault.

The court agreed with McKenzie, noting that a special relationship typically arises where the relationship places the defendant in a superior position to control the risk. Here, there was a foreseeable risk of sexual abuse that the defendants recognized and tried to control by having practices videotaped and implementing its Safe Play program for education, screening, reporting, and other measures designed to promote appropriate behavior in tennis. “Since USTA controls both the facility and its coaches for those athletes in its training program,” the court stated, “players like McKenzie rely on Defendants to take reasonable steps to prevent opportunities for abuse from presenting themselves during training sessions and events…”

Judge Bryon wrote that this is “the hallmark of a special relationship,” and it imposes on the defendants a duty of reasonable care to protect players in their training program from sexual abuse. The court granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiff on this point.

The court also found that McKenzie’s claim for punitive damages could proceed. Under Fla. Stat. §768.72(2), punitive damages are available if there is clear and convincing evidence that “the defendant was personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence.” There is no dispute that Coach Aranda engaged in sexual misconduct, and McKenzie claims that the defendants’ officers, directors, and managers knowingly fostered a culture of sexual misconduct between coaches and players for many years.

A key witness on this point was former tennis star Pam Shriver, one of only six women to have won more than 100 titles in a career spanning two decades. Shriver is the former president of the USTA’s charitable foundation and an outspoken critic of personal relationships between coaches and young players. Shriver said she encountered abusive coaching relationships every year on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour, and that USTA’s senior executive and corporate counsel had cautioned her against speaking out about her personal experience, including a “warning” against talking with McKenzie’s attorney.

McKenzie argued that the USTA did not ban sexual relationships between players and staff members until 2019, based on an internal email. Since the USTA had adopted a policy prohibiting players and coaches from engaging in sexual activity two years earlier, the email could constitute evidence that the defendants failed to put safeguards in place to protect athletes. The court concluded there is sufficient evidence “from which a jury may conclude an award of punitive damages is warranted.”

The Takeaway

Kylie McKenzie was once the number 33 ranked junior. The 24-year-old is ranked number 652 at the professional level. There are more than 10,000 women tennis players competing at the NCAA level, with thousands more competing at the junior level. Only a handful of American professionals are ranked in the top 100. The challenge of becoming the next Coco Gauff or Venus or Serena is daunting enough without young, impressionable players having to experience and overcome shameful criminal conduct by their own coach.

The popularity of tennis in the U.S. exploded during the years of Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Arthur Ashe, and Jimmy Connors, but has since been cyclical. More than 23 million Americans play the sport, according to the National Tennis Association, which reported that participation has increased 33% since 2020. The presence or absence of high-profile Americans excelling in international competition has been a major factor. Match-fixing and doping scandals have presented challenges to growth. For the governing body of U.S. tennis to fail to protect vulnerable young girls and women from sexual abuse is a threat to women’s health and to the sport itself.

The USTA found that its coach sexually abused Kylie McKenzie. The finding may remove from the jury an often-problematic issue. With the court’s ruling that the USTA may be liable for punitive damages based on its alleged failure to adequately protect vulnerable young women from the potential sexual misconduct of USTA coaches, a settlement would seem more likely than a trial. Advantage, McKenzie.

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