Perserverence Pays Off in UC Davis Athletics Case

Porter Scott attorneys Nancy Sheehan and David Burkett accomplished the legal equivalent of a pin for their clients in a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by three former UC Davis students. Following a three week court trial in Mansourian, v. Regents of the University of California, Larry Vanderhoef, Robert Franks, Greg Warzecka and Pam Gill-Fisher, Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. issued a 147 page order on August 3, 2011 setting forth his findings of fact and conclusions of law.  He dismissed claims made by three female former UC Davis students who wanted to be members of the men’s intercollegiate wrestling team.  The women contended they were entitled to a spot on the men’s wrestling team because women had been an informal part of the team in the past.  When the Athletic Director instituted a roster management program in 2000 that limited the size of the men’s intercollegiate teams, the women were not selected because they did not have the skills necessary to compete at the NCAA Division I level.  Two of the plaintiffs tried out for the team in 2001, but again were not selected (this time by a new coach) because they lacked the necessary skills. Some males who tried out also were not selected. Plaintiffs filed suit in 2003, claiming UC Davis was obligated to either add additional roster spots for women or create a separate women’s intercollegiate wrestling team.

Judge Damrell  soundly rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, holding that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee any student a spot on an intercollegiate team. “Plaintiffs were not cut from the men’s team because of their sex. Rather, plaintiffs were cut …because, like the other male student-athletes who did not make the roster, they could not compete at the Division I, Pac-10 level in intercollegiate men’s wrestling.”  He also rejected the notion that UC Davis had an obligation to establish an intercollegiate wrestling team for women or to allow them to try out for the team under different terms than male students.  As a result of pointed cross-examination of the former wrestling coach and a solid line of testimony from defense witnesses, we were able to establish during trial that plaintiffs’ claims were based primarily on false statements made to them by the former coach in 2000. He told them two of the individual defendants ordered him to remove them from the team, when in fact he made the decision not to give them a spot on the roster. The court found the majority of the former coach’s testimony to be “wholly lacking in credibility” and noted that his “blatant misrepresentations” led the plaintiffs to  erroneously conclude they had been wronged. Of interest was the fact that the plaintiffs relied on the former coach as a key witness in their case, and to this day consider him to be their “hero.”   The four individuals who were sued endured ten years of negative publicity because of the claims made against them.  Nancy Sheehan, who has served as lead defense counsel from the outset of the case, stated “while this has been a long, difficult case, it has been an honor to represent these individuals who contributed so much to UC Davis athletics over the years, and a pleasure to know that after a full and fair trial, they have been completely vindicated.”

Plaintiffs also asserted a claim under Title IX, the federal statute that requires schools to provide gender equity in athletics. UC Davis contended it complied with Title IX via use of “prong two” of the three-part test for compliance with the statute, which requires a school to demonstrate a history and practice of expanding its intercollegiate athletic program for women.  This claim involved unique questions of law and issues that were described by Judge Damrell as “difficult, particularly in light of the dearth of guidance in this area of the law.”  The trial presented challenges in regard to evidence because the time period in issue went all the way back to the year Title IX was enacted (1972), and because this case pitted two of the leading Title IX experts in the country against each other.  Although Judge Damrell had high praise for the efforts made by UC Davis in regard to its efforts to expand intercollegiate athletic opportunities for female students, he found it could not claim reliance on prong two because it eliminated women’s junior varsity water polo and lacrosse in 2000 and did not immediately replace those participation opportunities.  To our knowledge, this was the first case where a university went all the way through trial on a prong two defense. It also raised issues of first impression on the intersection of constitutional and statutory requirements relating to athletics.  The case has been watched closely by colleges and universities across the country, and the result was reported in many media sources including the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Associated Press.

This case was originally pled as a class action with requests for injunctive relief, and monetary and punitive damages.  As a result of persistent and effective use of motions, Porter Scott attorneys whittled it down to the two claims that went to trial.  Our job is not quite done. The plaintiffs will now attempt to recover general damages on their Title IX claim. This quest should prove challenging, as Judge Damrell held that  while “UC Davis failed to comply with Title IX during the time that plaintiffs were students…, plaintiffs’ complaints about defendants’ conduct relating to wrestling were meritless. This troubling juxtaposition of the court’s conclusions would seem to place severe limitations on the damages these plaintiffs may recover.”  We will be back in the courtroom defending this issue in November.

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