Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ledbetter Invoked in Female Wrestlers' Case Against UC Davis

Mansourian v. U.C. Davis is a Title IX lawsuit filed in December 2003 that challenges the decision of U.C. Davis's athletic department to curtail women's wrestling. A federal district court recently dismissed the plaintiffs' unequal treatment claim -- but not their ineffective accommodation claim -- because it was filed too late.

We've blogged about other, related litigation involving wrestling and U.C. Davis here and here. Here is some background: In the 1990s, U.C. Davis's wrestling program was open to men and women. Female wrestlers competed against other women under "women's rules." The plaintiffs chose to attend U.C. Davis so that they would have an opportunity to wrestle. They joined the team and competed for two years.

In the 2000-01 school year, the University eliminated women from its wrestling program. After plaintiffs and the then-coach Michael Burch protested this decision and filed an OCR complaint, the University purported to change its mind in the spring of 2001. However, it never followed through. Burch was replaced with a coach who opposed women's wrestling, and in the fall of 2001 it became clear to the women who had chosen to attend or remain at U.C. Davis expecting to wrestle in 01-02 that they would be disappointed yet again.

The female wrestlers sued in December of 2003, alleging, essentially, two separate violations of Title IX: First, they argued that U.C. Davis's decision to exclude women from the wrestling program violated the regulatory requirement that schools provide equal treatment to women's athletics. They also argued that by cutting these participation opportunities, the University failed to effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of female athletes, a violation the three-prong policy.

Title IX does not specify a statute of limitations, so the court applied California's general two-year statute of limitations for personal injury cases. However, it found that plaintiffs' claims of unequal treatment all arise out of conduct that occurred between 2000 and the fall of 2001, which gave the plaintiffs until fall of 2003 to file their complaint. In dismissing the December 2003-filed equal accommodation claim as untimely, the court relied on the Supreme Court's recent decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, which held that the statute of limitations ran from the employers' initial discriminatory decision to discriminate against the plaintiff by paying her less than comparable men, even though she continued to experience the effect of this decision for as long as she continued to work there. U.C. Davis's initial discriminatory decision to treat female wrestlers differently than men thus started the two-year clock, even though plaintiffs experienced the effect of this discrimination as long as they continued to be students.

However, the court decided that the plaintiffs are allowed to press forward on their argument that cutting opportunities for female wrestlers violated the effective accommodation component of the Title IX regulations. Unlike the unequal treatment claim, the argument that U.C. Davis offers too few opportunities for women is not subject to a Ledbetter "initial decision" rule because this discriminatory act is repeated every day that the university fails to accommodate female athletes' interests and abilities or otherwise comply with the three-prong test. The court denied U.C. Davis's motion to dismiss this claim, and ruled that the plaintiffs are entitled to offer proof of the university's noncompliance and, if successful, to seek compensatory damages.

Decision is: Mansourian v. Board of Regents of the University of California at Davis, 2007 WL 3046034 (E.D. Cal. Oct. 18. 2007).

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