A years-long and closely watched lawsuit claiming discrimination against women in athletics at UC Davis is over and both sides have declared victory.
The parties announced Thursday that the university has paid $1.35 million to help defray the fees of attorneys representing former students who initially sued over their exclusion from the school's intercollegiate wrestling program.
The wrestling issue fell by the wayside, but the plaintiffs and their attorneys insisted Thursday they "racked up a series of victories for Title IX," a 1972 section of the U.S. Code that bars sex discrimination in intercollegiate athletics at schools receiving federal funds.
Now-retired U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. found in August that UC Davis did not sufficiently expand athletic opportunities for female students between 1998 and 2005, the years the three remaining plaintiffs were in attendance. A trial on damages was set to start March 5.
The university, however, pointed to Damrell's observation that "the issues raised regarding UC Davis' noncompliance with Title IX are difficult, particularly in light of the dearth of guidance in this area of the law."
Campus counsel Steve Drown agreed, adding, "Prior to this decision, there was almost no precedent" under the part of the compliance test that requires a history and continuing expansion of a school's sports program for women.
The university also noted that Damrell threw out claims against four of its top officials (all now retired), holding that they either did not violate the plaintiffs' equal protection rights or were entitled to qualified immunity in their handling of the uproar over women's wrestling.
Referencing the addition of women's cross country, lacrosse, water polo, crew, indoor track and field, and golf, Damrell found that UC Davis had a history of expanding its women's program, and did so during challenging times.
But, the judge found, "despite its best intentions to the contrary," the university did not meet its burden of proof because there was no net gain in the number of opportunities during the period at issue.
The primary basis for Damrell's finding was the university's decision to discontinue women's junior varsity polo and lacrosse in 2001, as recommended by the teams' coaches due to lack of viable competition. The judge found that while this was a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory" reason to drop the teams, in order to show a practice of expansion they should have been replaced at the time with others.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers cited what they described as "a landmark win" two years ago at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected procedural hurdles to Title IX suits. Damrell had ruled that Title IX does not entitle an athlete to financial damages if she has not given the university notice of her intention to sue and an opportunity to rectify the alleged violation. The appellate court reversed that.
"Schools have affirmative, independent obligations to expand opportunities when women are underrepresented in sports," said Kristen Galles, an attorney and Title IX expert who filed the suit on behalf of four female wrestlers in 2003. "Hopefully, the (circuit's) decision will wake schools up to those obligations."
Plaintiff Christine Ng said, "All we ever wanted was to represent UC Davis in sports. We litigated this case for nearly 10 difficult years and missed that opportunity. It should not have to take that long to achieve justice, but we are happy that the lives of many young women attending UC Davis after we did have benefited and will benefit from our fight for Title IX."
Plaintiffs' attorney Jim Sturdevant stated, "While it is disturbing that the university chose to spend millions to litigate for years rather than let these women participate, this case brought about important changes at UC Davis that will provide other female students an equal chance to participate in sports."