Friday, May 02, 2008

Female Wrestlers' Discrimination Claim Dismissed for Lack of Notice

Now that last week's decision in the U.C. Davis wrestling case is available online, I can offer the fuller analysis I promised.

The background, briefly, is this: In 2000, U.C. Davis decided that women would no longer be eligible to participate on the wrestling team. The female wrestlers sued, alleging discrimination by the athletic department in the overall treatment of women's athletics (in terms of scholarships, access to facilities, coaching, etc.) and failing to effectively accommodate female students with an equitable number of opportunities to participate in athletics (the three-prong test). Last year, the unequal treatment claim was dismissed as untimely in an application of the Supreme Court's controversial Ledbetter standard.

Last week, the district court dismissed the remaining ineffective accommodation claim because "plaintiffs have not alleged they gave defendant notice and an opportunity to remedy any purported systemic non-compliance with Title IX." The district court relied on a 1998 Supreme Court decision, Gebser v. Lago Vista School District, which emphasized that an institution could not be liable to a private plaintiff for money damages unless it had notice of the discrimination the plaintiff faced, and an opportunity to fix the problem.

Gebser was, of course, a sexual harassment case, and its applicability in athletics context is questionable. If a plaintiff is harassed by a teacher or another student, the discriminatory conduct that can attributed to the institution itself (and thus, subject to Title IX) is its failure to take appropriate steps to protect the plaintiff and prevent the harassment from continuing. It makes sense to emphasize the notice requirement in that context, since an institution can't reasonably be expected to prevent someone else's harassing behavior if it doesn't know about it.

In the athletics cases, however, plaintiffs are alleging discriminatory conduct in the form of institutional decisions to configure its athletics program in a certain way. It doesn't make sense to require plaintiffs to put institutions on notice of the discriminatory nature of their own decisions.

The district court cited one other case that applies Gebser's notice requirement against Title IX plaintiffs in the athletics context. That decision is Grandson v. University of Minnesota, 272 F.3d 568 (8th Cir. 2001). But from what I can tell, that is the only other one. I hope the plaintiffs appeal this decision. Perhaps we'll see a circuit split.

Decision is: Mansourian v. Board of Regents of the University of California at Davis, 2008 WL 1860031 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 23, 2008).