An Illinois district court denied a motion by DePaul University Monday to dismiss a wrongful-termination Title IX lawsuit brought by a sports psychologist whose company provided mental health care to the university’s student athletes.
By allowing the case to move forward, the Northern District Court of Illinois affirmed that civil rights protections in an educational setting extend to independent contractors.
For 13 years, DePaul’s athletics department contracted Jenny Conviser and her company, Ascend, to provide mental health care and eating-disorder treatment for student athletes. But when Conviser began speaking out about sex abuse and discrimination in the department—including by a legendary softball coach—the athletics staff started limiting the number of students they sent to her for help. Eventually, DePaul terminated its contract with Conviser and Ascend.
The parties filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit against DePaul, arguing that the university’s actions were retaliatory and thus violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities. DePaul sought to dismiss the case on the grounds that Conviser was an independent contractor—not a student or employee.
Monday’s ruling dispelled the notion that Title IX has such limits.
“The plain language of the statute does not require a plaintiff to have been denied an educational benefit, nor does the statute limit its application to students, employees, or beneficiaries of the federal financial assistance,” the ruling read. “The Court finds … that Plaintiffs’ interests fall comfortably within the zone of interests Title IX arguably serves to protect.”