Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ninth Circuit Affirms Title IX Win Against California School District

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court's ruling after trial that the Sweetwater Union School District in California violated Title IX by providing inferior facilities and resources to girls' athletics at Castle Park High School and committed retaliation when it fired a coach who advocated for equal treatment.

First, the court affirmed the lower court's conclusion that Sweetwater failed to satisfy any aspect of the three-part test for equality in the number of athletic opportunities available to each sex.  First, the disparity between the percentage of girls in the Castle Park student body and its percentage of female athletic opportunities was a minimum of 6.7 during the time frame at issue in the litigation.  The court agreed that this could not amount to "substantial proportionality" because 6.7 percentage points translates to 47 more girls who would have had athletic opportunities if they were proportionally distributed, and 47 girls "can sustain at least one viable team." Second, the fact that Sweetwater increased the number of girls' teams over the last ten years did not constitute a history and continuing practice of expanding opportunities for girls since the number of athletic opportunities actually decreased during that time (from 156 to 149). Third, the school district did not effectively satisfy the interests and abilities of female students, having eliminated a girls field hockey team twice within the time period at issue, and for reasons not related to a lack of interest in the sport.  The court also rejected as both false and irrelevant the school district's argument that it should not be expected to sponsor a field hockey team because field hockey is not sanctioned by the state high school athletic association.

The court also affirmed the lower court's ruling that the school district retaliated against the plaintiffs (a class of female student athletes) by firing the softball coach in order to keep him from advocating for equal treatment for his team.  First the court agreed that the plaintiffs were challenging retaliation as it was directed to them, rather than asserting the rights of their coach, which would have raised concerns about standing. It then went on to affirm the lower court's conclusion that the school district's purported reasons for firing the coach were pretext for retaliation. 

The injunctive relief ordered by the lower court -- the requirement that the school district prepare a compliance plan -- should now go into effect. 

When we blogged about this case before, I mentioned that it was a historic case because it was the first time a high school had been brought to trial for violations of Title IX in its athletics program. There is comparatively little historical significance in the outcome on appeal, however, as any other result would have been difficult to imagine. Moreover, the Ninth Circuit decision adds to the overwhelmingly favorable appellate court win-rate for plaintiffs challenging sex discrimination in athletics. See, e.g. (95%).  In fact, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this appeal was the school district's chutzpah in trying to justify the discrimination in this case, and its failure to back down either before or after trial.