Ollier v. Sweetwater High Sch. Dist., No. 07-714 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 9, 2012)
Abstract: A federal district court in California has ruled that a school district violated the Title IX rights of a class of female student-athletes because of the unequal treatment and benefits afforded the girls’ softball program in comparison to those afforded the boys’ baseball program. The court also found that the school district was liable for retaliation under Title IX for firing the girls’ softball coach, who had complained about the unequal facilities. The court found that the plaintiffs in this class action were entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief. It, therefore, ordered the parties jointly to prepare a proposed compliance plan to include the court’s continuing jurisdiction and monitoring of the school district’s athletic programs and activities.
Facts/Issues: A number of members of Castle Park High School’s (CPHS) softball team filed a class action suit in federal district court on behalf female students and potential students in the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUSD) who participate, seek to participate, and are or were deterred from participating in student athletic activities at CPHS. The suit alleged SUHSD unlawfully discriminated against female student athletes at CPHS with respect to “practice and competitive facilities; locker rooms; training facilities; equipment and supplies; travel and transportation, coaches and coaching facilities; scheduling of games and practice times; publicity; and funding” in violation of Title IX. It also alleged SUHSD “failed to provide female students with equal athletic participation opportunities, despite their demonstrated athletic interest and and abilities to participate in athletics.” Because of these alleged failures, the plaintiffs asserted that girls’ participation in sports is severely limited and interested girls are discouraged from going out for sports.
On March 30, 2009, the district court granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment on their second cause of action, finding that they had demonstrated through uncontroverted, admissible evidence that the defendants are not in compliance with Title IX based on unequal participation opportunities in the athletic program.
The remaining claims — violation of Title IX based on unequal treatment and benefits to females at CPHS, and retaliation — went to trial.
Ruling/Rationale: Following the 10-day bench trial, the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on the Title IX claims based on unequal treatment and benefits, as well as retaliation.
Regarding unequal treatment and benefits under Title IX, the court reviewed numerous aspects of the girls’ softball program in comparison with the boys’ baseball program at CPHS:
(1) Recruiting benefits. The district court found: “The lack of coaches for girls’ teams impacted negatively the teams’ ability to participate in conference and nonconference competitions” and “… influenced the ability to adequately recruit girls for athletic teams.” It also noted that SUHSD had failed to present any evidence that recruiting practices at CPHS had changed since the lawsuit had been filed.
(2) Locker rooms, practices and competition facilities. The court concluded that the ones”provided to females athletes at CPHS are unequal as compared to the locker room, practice and competition facilities provided to male athletes.”
(3) Equipment, uniforms and storage. The district court found that SUHSD failed to present any evidence that it “monitors the provision of athletic equipment storage for gender equity.” It also found that the athletic director “did not provide any oversight for gender equity in the provision of equipment, supplies and uniforms to ensure that male and female athletes were provided with the same benefits.”
(4) Scheduling benefits. While noting that SUHSD had corrected boys’ and girls’ basketball scheduling to meet equitable competitive scheduling requirements, it found ”no evidence of any other time changes for any other sports . . . .”
(5) Equal access to coaching. The district court pointed out that “CPHS’ lack of efforts to consistently and timely obtain coaches for girls’ teams severely impacts girls’ opportunities for competitive athletics.”
(6) Medical and training services. The court noted that in 2010 “significant changes were made to the weight-training and conditioning facility with the intent to make the area more gender equitable.” SUHSD had not presented any evidence, however, “that the renovated facility was being used by girls’ and boys’ teams in an equitable manner.” “Further, neither the Athletic Director nor defendant monitored weight room usage for gender equity.”
(7) Publicity and promotional support. The district court found a distinct lack of equity in this area, noting that while 46% of male athletes received the benefit of the band being at their events, only 13% of female teams received that benefit. “From 1998 through the date of the trial, no one at CPHS was tasked with monitoring publicity or promotional opportunities for gender equity.”
(8) Fundraising benefits. The district court determined that no one at CPHS had “monitored Fund-raising opportunities or donations to the athletic program for gender equity,” nor had evidence been presented “to indicate that this situation has changed.”
(9) Administrative activity. The district court found no evidence that CPHS “had ever conducted a Title IX self-evaluation, a requirement under the implementing regulations.” It concluded: “As a result of systemic administrative failures at CPHS, female athletes have received unequal treatment and benefits before and during the time this action has been pending.”
Turning to the findings of fact in regard to the retaliation claim, the district court focused on the dismissal Douglas Martinez, who was the head softball coach from 2000-2006, allegedly based on his failure to complete paperwork, properly calculate a player’s academic eligibility, and allowing an unauthorized parent to work on the softball field. He was terminated after continuing to complain about the softball program’s facilities.
The district court then issued its conclusions of law. As to the unequal treatment and benefits claim, the court concluded that the disparities between female and male athletic programs were not negligible and, therefore, violated Title IX:
Because of defendants’ continuing failure to address gender equity in athletics in a full and comprehensive manner, CPHS has not met its burden to demonstrate that the interim measures have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violations.
With respect to the retaliation claim, the district court ruled that the reasons proffered by SUHSD were pretextual and, thus, the plaintiffs had overcome their burden of showing that SUHSD had not provided legitimate reasons for terminating Martinez. The plaintiffs were adversely impacted by Martinez’ firing, as a less experienced coach was hired, significantly disrupting their long-term and successful softball program.
Lastly, the district court found that the plaintiffs were entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief. It rejected SUHSD’s argument that the claims were moot. The court, instead, concluded: “Because of the defendant’s long-standing and continuing overall violations of Title IX with respect to the treatment and benefits accorded female athletes compared to male athletes, and the fact that interim remedies have not completely and irrevocable eradicated the effects of these violations, this action is not moot.”
Ollier v. Sweetwater High Sch. Dist., No. 07-714 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 9, 2012)
[Editor's Note: In February 2012, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Parker v. Franklin Cnty. Ctmy. Sch. Corp. holding that two female basketball players had presented sufficient evidence for trial on their Title IX claim of denial of equal athletic opportunity. Their claim against several Indiana school districts was based on disparity in scheduling boys’ and girls’ basketball games. The panel also found that the school districts were not entitled to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity from the players’ equal protection claim based on the scheduling disparity.]