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Davis

Davis, California

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Judge rules in favor of UC Davis in Title IX lawsuit

UC Davis scored a victory in the court system, as a federal judge ruled in favor of the university in a Title IX lawsuit filed by four women who were dropped from the intercollegiate wrestling team.

U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. ruled that the plaintiffs in Mansourian et al. v. Regents of the University of California failed to notify the campus that they were making broad allegations against the entire Intercollegiate Athletics program.

Nancy Sheehan of Porter Scott, the firm that represents the university, said that while she was disappointed that the court did not render a decision on the allegations in the lawsuit, she was still pleased with the ruling overall.

“I have strongly felt from the beginning that my client was not in violation of Title IX, and we’ve worked really hard on this case,” said Sheehan in a phone interview. “We would have loved to have a ruling on all the issues, but I understand why Judge Damrell did what he did.”

Enacted in 1972, Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Noreen Farrell of Equal Rights Advocates, which represents the plaintiffs along with the Sturdevant Law Firm, said her clients will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“We’re very disappointed with the court’s ruling; it’s not on the merits at all,” said Farrell in a telephone interview. “We definitely think that the court got the legal technicality wrong.”

Four former UC Davis students filed the suit in December 2003, two years after the university did not renew the contract of wrestling coach and staunch Title IX supporter Michael Burch.

The then-new and current wrestling coach Lennie Zalesky subsequently required all wrestlers – regardless of sex – to try out for the team on an equal basis. As a result, the four female wrestlers who had remained on the team during Burch’s tenure were forced to try out for placement on the roster. None succeeded.

Burch claimed his firing was related to his Title IX advocacy, an allegation athletic director Greg Warzecka vehemently denied. Burch filed suit against the university in 2003, but settled with the university for $725,000 in January 2007. He is now an assistant wrestling coach at Brown University.

Though women’s wrestling is not a sport sanctioned by the NCAA, Farrell said two ICA sports at UC Davis – lacrosse and water polo – were not sanctioned by the NCAA when the university started its programs in 1995.

There is sufficient interest and ability to support a women’s wrestling team, as “thousands of girls are wrestling in California right now,” Farrell argued.

Farrell characterized the mixed-sex tryout policy as “discriminatory,” arguing that “the women weren’t interested in participating against men,” but rather against other women.

“The university wouldn’t dissolve the women’s basketball team and have one program for men and women,” she said.

In response to the Mansourian suit, the university filed a motion for Summary Judgment, a procedure in which one side files a brief with the court claiming that there is insufficient evidence to move forward with the suit, Sheehan said.

In its brief, the university claimed that “it is in compliance with Title IX because it has continuously expanded its athletic program for women over the years,” Sheehan said.

In addition, UC Davis argued that the plaintiffs had given the university a lack of notice, a contention Damrell affirmed Wednesday. The law requires that plaintiffs “let the school know what it is [they’re] complaining about,” Sheehan said. In this case, the plaintiffs did not inform the university that they were challenging the entire ICA program, she said.

The Mansourian suit is not the only one claiming that UC Davis has failed to comply with Title IX. A second lawsuit, Brust et al. v. Regents of the University of California, wasfiled in July 2007 by two female field hockey players and a female rugby player. The suit, which is still pending, alleges that the university does not provide equal opportunities and athletic scholarships for female athletes.

“The underlying thrust is a little different … because they are club athletes and they are asking that a varsity sport be established [whereas] in the Mansourian case, the women were claiming … that they had a right to be on the varsity team,” Sheehan said.

Farrell said the university chose to add women’s golf in 2005 only after facing Title IX litigation. However, a women’s field hockey or rugby team would have been “much bigger,” she said.

The Brust suit is scheduled for trial in October 2009.

Sheehan said UC Davis has always been supportive of Title IX and female athletes in general.

She said the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights developed three legal tests for Title IX, any of which can be satisfied for compliance: There are athletic opportunities substantially proportionate to student enrollment, a demonstration of continuous expansion of athletic opportunities for women or accommodation to sufficient interest and ability of students who can sustain a viable team.

Sheehan said whether or not a school is in compliance “is very much a judgment call,” as there is little case law dealing with Title IX. However, she said she believes UC Davis meets the second prong of the test.

Farrell disagreed, arguing that whether the university is in compliance with Title IX today is “debatable.” Between 1999 and 2004, the university did not expand athletic opportunities for women at a rate proportional to enrollment, she said.

“There’s not proportionality between students and participation,” Farrell said. “The university didn’t respond to the interests of the campus.”

In addition, while there is “not much case law” in the Ninth Circuit, Farrell said “there are at least one totwo dozen cases” nationally concerning Title IX.

UC Davis professor emeritus of law and gender equity expert Martha West said she was unsurprised by Damrell’s ruling.

Over the years that this suit has been pending, I never thought the women wrestlers had a valid Title IX claim,” West said in an e-mail interview.

West said the university was “justified in requiring the women to try out for the men’s team under the same standards as the men,” and the four female wrestlers “would have had to prove there was sufficient interest among women to establish a separate women’s team that would have been competitive.”

The university was not required to set up a women’s wrestling team because it had expanded opportunities for women in other sports, West said.

“UCD is close to parity, if not at parity, with the percentage of women as participants in athletics,” West said.

UC Davis currently fields 14 varsity women’s sports and 12 varsity men’s sports. The university had 812 varsity athletes from 2006-2007, 412 of which were female. The proportion of student-athletes was within 4.65 percent of the campus’ proportion of female undergraduate students overall, according to a university Title IX fact sheet.

 

PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at campus@californiaaggie.com.

 

 

 

TIMELINE

 

May 2001 – UC Davis fires wrestling coach and Title IX advocate Michael Burch; new mixed sex tryout policy implemented

December 2003 – Four women file lawsuit against university, alleging sexual discrimination

January 2007 – Burch settles with university for $725,000

July 2007 – Two female UC Davis club field hockey players and one club rugby player/wrestler file suit against university, also alleging sexual discrimination

April 2008 – Judge dismisses wrestling case, ruling that the plaintiffs did not adequately communicate complaints with the university. Plaintiffs plan to appeal.

October 2009 – Scheduled trial of Brust lawsuit

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