Win for Women Who Wrestled

Federal appeals court sides sweepingly with female former athletes who sued U. of California-Davis.
February 9, 2010

A federal appeals court on Monday ordered the University of California at Davis to defend itself against sex discrimination charges brought by a group of female former wrestlers at the institution. The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which sided with the former athletes on several fronts, overturned a lower court judge's 2008 opinion.

That judge, Frank Damrell Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, had dismissed a lawsuit brought by several women who had, in 2000, been dropped from the wrestling team and, after bringing a federal complaint, reinstated but ordered to compete against men for spots on the squad.

After a series of protracted legal maneuverings, the women refiled their lawsuit in 2007 as a class action, accusing the university of failing to continually expand athletics opportunities for women. But Damrell tossed out their lawsuit in May 2008, ruling that the former athletes had failed to notify the university that it was being accused of broad-scale discrimination and to give it a chance to rectify the situation. Because of that procedural ruling, the court did not address the merits of the plaintiffs' case. (Last summer, the university settled an offshoot of this case.)

In taking up the former athletes' appeal, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit court soundly disagreed with the lower court judge's conclusions and significantly expanded its reach. First, the appeals court rejected Damrell's finding that plaintiffs in a Title IX case accusing an institution of sex discrimination (as opposed to a harassment case involving a single employee) must provide "pre-litigation notice" to the entity in question. While an institution might need to be informed that one of its employees had engaged in harassment and given a chance to correct it, the appeals panel wrote, "[d]ecisions to create or eliminate teams or to add or decrease roster slots for male or female athletes are official decisions, not practices by individual students or staff."

Several legal and women's rights groups had filed friend of the court briefs in the Davis case asking the Ninth Circuit to overturn the lower court's conclusion about the prior notice issue.

To conclude that the case should be heard by a trial court, the Ninth Circuit was required to determine that, based on the most favorable reading of the plaintiffs' case, there were "genuine issues of material fact" for a court to decide. It found so.

The appeals panel challenges the university's record in meeting the second prong of Title IX -- a "history and continuing practice of program expansion" for female athletes and women's teams. The court's analysis goes so far as to question whether Davis officials added the right sports when they added women's teams -- a level of analysis that some university administrators might well see as micromanagement -- but the court's bottom line judgment is that "the record before us does not contain undisputed facts showing a history and continuing process of program expansion that is responsive to women's interests."

The Ninth Circuit panel also sides with the former athletes in upholding their right to sue Davis for discriminating against them under the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. The university had argued that it was immune from such a claim.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by Equal Rights Advocates and a San Francisco law firm, are seeking punitive and compensatory damages in the case.


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