Monday, September 22, 2014
Court Upholds Ruling for Female Athletes Who Sued School District
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday affirmed an order requiring improvements in girls sports programs at a San Diego County high school.
The panel said Senior U.S. District Judge M. James Lorenz of the Southern District of California correctly granted declaratory and injunctive relief to the plaintiffs, athletes at Castle Park High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District, based on evidence of unequal facilities, inadequate opportunities, and retaliation against the coach of the school’s softball team after athletes’ parents complained of discrimination.
The suit was brought in 2007 by members of the softball team, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
They said in their complaint that female student athletes did not receive an “equal opportunity to participate in athletic programs,” and were “deterred from participating” by the district’s “repeated, purposeful, differential treatment of female students at Castle Park.”
Plaintiffs alleged the district ignored their protests and “continued to unfairly discriminate against females despite persistent complaints by students, parents and others.” Their male counterparts, they claimed, were given superior facilities, equipment, transportation, coaching, scheduling, publicity, funding, and opportunities for participation.
Lorenz certified the suit as a class action, and granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs in March 2009, ruling that they had been denied equal participation as a matter of law. While the school had 23 girls sports teams, compared to 21 for boys, the judge found that the number of female athletes was smaller in proportion to female enrollment, and that the district presented no competent evidence that the disparity was caused by relative disinterest in sports.
That left the unequal-treatment and retaliation claims for trial. Prior to trial, Lorenz excluded two proposed defense experts—administrators at other schools who were set to offer opinions the judge found to be speculative and based on questionable methodology—in addition to excluding 38 fact witnesses who were not listed until several months after the discovery cutoff.
The judge also ruled that the plaintiffs had standing to bring their retaliation claim, construing the firing of the softball coach as an act against the plaintiffs, which the judge said was still having repercussions, including the imposition of a chilling effect on students’ exercise of their right to complain of unequal treatment.
Following a 10-day trial, the judge found for the plaintiffs on the remaining claims and ordered the district to come up with a plan to bring the school into compliance “with Title IX in all aspects of its athletic programs and activities” and to correct the violations found by the court.
Judge Ronald Gould, writing for the Ninth Circuit Friday, rejected all of the district’s claims of error, including its claim of “substantial proportionality” in the number of male and female athletes.
The evidence, Gould said, showed that throughout the 10-year period ending in 2008, the disparity between male and female participation was at least 6.7 percent at all times. In 2008, he explained, that came out to a difference of 47 athletes, enough to fill a team in any sport.
But beyond the raw numbers, the judge said, was the school’s history of “dramatic ups and downs” in female participation, and the fact that the school had twice eliminated the girls field hockey team, and could not show that its motivations for doing so were legitimate.
Gould also rejected the district’s attack on the retaliation finding, which was based on the firing of softball coach Chris Martinez, and on certain actions taken by the school after that, including the hiring of a less-experienced coach and cancellation of the team’s participation in an out-of-state tournament.
The panel deferred to Lorenz’s findings that the school’s alternative explanations for Martinez’s firing—including that he was “abrasive,” that he was not a certified teacher, that he had used an ineligible player, and that he had violated rules limiting the participation of parent volunteers—were pretextual.
“Sweetwater disregards the salient fact that the district court held a trial on retaliation,” Gould wrote. “The district court could permissibly find that, on the evidence it considered,
Sweetwater’s non-retaliatory reasons for firing Coach Martinez were a pretext for unlawful retaliatory conduct.”
The district’s explanations as to why Martinez was axed, the judge said, were “shifting” and “inconsistent,” providing further support for the district judge’s finding of pretext.
The opinion was joined by Judge N. Randy Smith and Chief Judge Morgan England Jr. of the Eastern District of California, sitting by designation.
The case is Ollier v. Sweetwater Union High School District, 12-56348.
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