GRAND FORKS -- A federal judge has dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of former University of North Dakota women’s hockey team members against the North Dakota University System.
The lawsuit, which claimed UND violated Title IX when it cut the women’s hockey program in 2017, was dismissed in federal court on Wednesday, June 19 by Judge Daniel Hovland. Title IX ensures no person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participating in or be denied the benefits of a program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision and look forward to continuing to move UND athletics forward,” Meloney Linder, UND vice president for marketing and communications, said in a statement.
The goal of the suit was to reinstate the women’s hockey team; the players were not seeking financial damages outside of covering court costs. The lawsuit claimed UND violated Title IX through the selection of sports and level of competition.
Dan Siegel, attorney representing the team members, said he is disappointed the judge dismissed the case “without giving us the chance to present evidence to show the validity of our claims.”
The basic issue of the case focused on how Title IX is interpreted, according to Siegel. Various courts, including the North Dakota federal court in this case, have used a three-part test to determine if a school is in compliance with Title IX. In the argument, Hovland breaks down the test and explains how UND was in compliance with Title IX.
For example, Hovland said UND passed the first part of the test which covers proportionality, which means institutions are to “provide intercollegiate or interscholastic participation opportunities for women and men at rates that are proportionate to their respective rates of enrollment.”
“The plaintiffs’ first factual basis for disproportionate opportunities is the elimination of the women’s ice hockey program. The assumption that eliminating an athletic program, such as the women’s hockey program, leads to disproportionate opportunities is misguided,” Hovland wrote.
The opinion also states that because the plaintiffs failed to provide information that would substantiate their claim, relief could not be granted.
But Siegel says he disagrees with the court’s conclusion because failing or passing a part of the three-part test is not the only way to determine if a university is discriminating against a certain group of people.
Siegel said the players’ case is based on rulings and regulations made by the Office for Civil Rights, which in his opinion, allow for a challenge to be made about whether the selection of a university’s sports itself can be discriminatory.
“In this particular case, the issue is not abstract,” he said. “We’re talking about North Dakota, where ice hockey is perhaps the most popular sport in the state and is growing in popularity among women athletes. … We argue that the elimination of the women’s ice hockey program at North Dakota is itself discriminatory when the university is continuing to have the men’s ice hockey program.”
Siegel noted that he and the court are in a legal disagreement on the ruling, adding the court’s ruling represents a “very narrow” interpretation of Title IX.
The group has one month to appeal the court’s decision. Siegel said the players have not yet decided if they will appeal the decision.
The 11 former players named in the lawsuit were Breanna Berndsen, Kristen Campbell, Charly Dahlquist, Taylor Flaherty, Ryleigh Houston, Anna Kilponen, Rebekah Kolstad, Sarah Lecavalier, Alyssa MacMillan, Annelise Rice and Abbey Stanley.
All were members of the team when the program was cut and had college eligibility remaining.
Billie Jo Lorius, communications director for the North Dakota University System, said the system is “gratified that the court saw the facts of the case in our favor” and is “appreciative of all of the time and effort that was put into this case.”
“We no longer expect to comment on this case,” Lorius said in an email. “We remain focused on our main task of doing the best job we can for the students of North Dakota.”