Thursday, August 04, 2011

District Court Reaches Decision in UC Davis Title IX Case

U.S. District Court judge Frank Damrell issued a 147-page opinion yesterday in the near-decade-long litigation between the University of California at Davis and three female wrestlers who were cut from the men's wrestling team when the coach instituted a try-out policy in 2001. So far I've seen headlines calling it a "split decision," a "dismissal" of the lawsuit against Davis officials, a ruling that Davis "did not discriminate" and a "Title IX victory" against U.C. Davis. As these seemingly-conflicting sentiments suggest, the decision is nuanced and defies reduction to a clear and simple headline. I think "split decision" is the most accurate characterization.

What made the decision, at least in part, a "Title IX victory"? Ultimately, the judge decided that while the plaintiffs were students at U.C. Davis, the university did not comply with the three-prong test used to measure equity in the athletic opportunities provided to each sex. Davis stipulated that during the time the plaintiffs were students, the university did not offer opportunities proportionate to the percentage of women in undergraduate population (prong one) and that there was unmet interest and ability among the underrepresented sex (prong three). But, Davis argued, it satisfied prong two's requirement of a "history and continuing practice" of expanding opportunities for the underrepresented sex, which is prong two of the three-part test. In large part, the university's prong two defense rested on the fact that it had added three women's sports in 1996. Typically, adding a women's team gets a university two-to three years of credit for "continuing" program expansion, and the court seemed inclined to agree that adding three teams at once should count for a longer safe harbor. However, the court reasoned that even if Davis got extra credit for adding multiple teams in 1996, it still eliminated over 30 athletic opportunities for women during the relevant time frame disqualified them for compliance with "continuous" program expansion. In particular, the university eliminated J.V. teams in women's water polo and lacrosse in 2000, and while the court noted that this decision was not discriminatory or itself a violation -- even the coaches of those sports supported the decision to turn the J.V. teams into club teams -- the court determined that the "failure to replace" those opportunities at the same time put prong two compliance out of reach.

Yet despite ruling that U.C. Davis did not comply with Title IX at the time it eliminated opportunities for female wrestlers, much of the court's decision is as pro-Davis as some of the headlines suggest. For one thing, even in its Title IX analysis, the court is careful to commend Davis for its history of program expansion, which included a rigorous self-analysis of compliance that resulted in the university's decision to add women's teams during a period of time in the 1980s when Title IX enforcement was lax and many other universities ignored the law. Additionally, the court emphasized that cutting the women from the wrestling team did not count against the university for purposes of prong two, since they were not cut because of sex but for "normal fluctuations" based on talent and skill.

Moreover, the court dismissed the plaintiffs' other Title IX arguments, such as that the university was required to provide a female wrestling team to satisfy the unmet interest and ability, after determining that at the time there was not a reasonable expectation for competition for such a team. And it dismissed all of the plaintiffs' Equal Protection claims which were directed at individual university officials. According to the court, the female wrestlers had no constitutional right to be members of the men's wrestling team, only, at most to an equal opportunity to try out for the team. A decision by the head coach that the women had to qualify based on talent is not discrimination on the basis of sex, nor is it a decision that can be attributed to the athletic director, associate athletic director, or other individual defendants.

Even the last section of the opinion, in which the judge acknowledged that plaintiffs are entitled to damages, reads rather pro-defendant to me. The court acknowledged that plaintiffs should receive damages to compensate them for whatever "actual harm" they experienced as students at UC Davis who were interested in athletics. The court does not assign a number to this, due to the fact that the parties have not yet briefed the issue of damages, but it's a number that could theoretically be zero. The court did not hold that U.C. Davis was not liable for reasons having to do with the wrestling team's decision to cut the plaintiffs. The basis for liability is only that it did not add enough opportunities for women in general. Thus, the wrestlers will not be compensated for their lost opportunity to wrestle (whatever dollar amount could be attached to that) but the generalized disappointment they experienced as undifferentiated members of the female student body because the university did not have enough opportunities to satisfy Title IX. This seems like a much harder type of damage to monetize.

Assuming this decision is either upheld or not appealed, I predict that it will be influential on the general question of how to measure prong two compliance when a university eliminates opportunities for the underrepresented sex. It has always been clear that a university that eliminates athletic opportunities for women will have a difficult-to-impossible claim of prong two compliance. After this decision, it is clear that eliminating viable opportunities without replacing them will never qualify for prong two. The rest of the decision, rooted in a rather unique controversy about female adjuncts to a men's wrestling team, will likely have less influence.