Split Ruling in Title IX Case at U. of California Campus Allows Both Sides to Claim Victory

August 03, 2011

A federal district court in California issued a split ruling Wednesday in a closely watched gender-equity case, finding that the University of California at Davis failed to comply with Title IX during a recent stretch in which it eliminated some teams for women while failing to create new opportunities for them elsewhere.

But the decision also cleared the university of liability in civil-rights claims against four top administrators who were accused of having discriminated against a group of former female athletes. The ruling, handed down by the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, should add much-needed clarity to an area of Title IX compliance rarely touched on in legal proceedings.

The case has been percolating in various forms in California's federal court system since 2003, and has prompted other rulings and a settlement on related gender-equity questions. The case originated with the complaints of three female students at Davis who sought to participate on the university's varsity wrestling team at a time when other women's teams were being eliminated. They objected to having to try out in the same manner as male students, and claimed the requirement constituted a violation of Title IX.

This week's ruling, which addressed only the question of the defendants' liability, centered on two narrow issues: whether the university was out of compliance with Title IX by failing to demonstrate a history of expanding opportunities for women—known as "Prong 2" of Title IX's three-part test for compliance—and whether the four officials discriminated against the plaintiffs.

The 147-page decision drew praise from gender-equity advocates and university officials alike—albeit for different reasons.

The plaintiffs, for instance, applauded the court's findings on the compliance challenge, in which the judge, Frank C. Damrell Jr., faulted the university for failing to promptly restore dozens of participation opportunities that were lost when it eliminated some women's teams. But the judge also had sympathetic words for the university, which he said had a "strong history of supporting women's participation in athletics" but faced "difficult" compliance obstacles. Those challenges, he wrote, were complicated by a lack of legal and regulatory guidance surrounding the second of Title IX's three-part test.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funds, offers three ways to comply with the law: by providing athletic opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the overall student enrollment, by demonstrating a history and continued practice of expanding opportunities for women, or by accommodating the athletic "interests and abilities" of the underrepresented sex.

Nancy Sheehan, a lawyer for the university, said she welcomed the added clarity that Wednesday's ruling brings to the murkiness surrounding the second prong of the test, under which the university said it was compliant at the time the claims were brought. (The university now says it complies under the first prong of the test, and gave no signal that it has any plans to appeal the ruling.) "There's a real dearth of case law in this area for universities to look to for guidance," said Ms. Sheehan, of the law firm of Porter Scott in Sacramento.

Noreen Farrell, of the civil-rights organization Equal Rights Advocates, who is the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, called the ruling "tremendously important." The new guidance is particularly helpful now that many programs are at least a decade removed from their last burst of program expansion, she said.

"A lot of the earlier Prong 2 decisions were in the mid 1990s," she said. "This is sort of the next wave. What is a school's obligation in 2011, 40 years after the law was passed? Can they continue to rest on expansion from a decade before?"

If universities opt to comply with Title IX under the second prong, by demonstrating a history of expanding opportunities for women, she added, "you have to expand actual opportunities. It's not enough to add a team when you're cutting other opportunities."