Court Clears Way for Coach’s Title IX Suit against ESU

Mar 13, 2004

A federal court in Kansas has dealt a significant setback to Emporia State University, which had moved to dismiss a gender discrimination claim brought by a former coach.
Specifically, the district court judge held that the intent with which Congress infused the Equal Pay Act trumps ESU’s governmental immunity argument and that Title IX does in fact “authorize a private cause of action for damages.”
Maxine Mehus became the women’s volleyball coach at ESU on August 2, 1988. Over the course of her career at the school, she claims that ESU discriminated against on the basis of her gender. She filed a complaint to that effect on February 14, 2003, alleging that the university discriminated against her by:
(1) paying her lower salary and benefits than similarly situated male employees;
(2) awarding her smaller and less frequent increases in salary and benefits than similarly situated male employees;
(3) denying her upgraded positions and promotions;
(4) classifying her job in a fashion which denies her the opportunity to be on the same 12-month contract as similarly situated male employees, to receive compensation commensurate with her experience and education, and to receive valuable employment rights and privileges; and
(5) forcing her to work under terms, conditions and privileges which are less beneficial and desirable and more onerous and difficult than those of similarly situated male employees.
The actions, she alleged, violated Title VII, Title IX and the Equal Pay Act. She sought $200, 000 in damages.
In support of her claim, Mehus charged that ESU did not provide her with the resources, financial support, coaching assistants, aids and equipment that it provided similarly situated male employees. She also pointed to a smaller budget and fewer provisions than similarly situated male employees for team housing, dining and other facilities and services that “are necessary to travel to and from sporting events.”
Shortly after she filed her suit, the school released information about Mehus’ salary in a counter offensive noting that her annual salary of $46,499 makes her the fifth-highest paid of nine coaches at the school. The highest-paid coach is second-year football coach Dave Wiemers, who makes $63,000 per year. The only other female coach is second-year softball coach Stacy Gemeinhardt, the lowest paid of the nine coaches at $24,508.
On June 25, 2003, ESU had filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing among other things that ESU is entitled sovereign immunity and that the plaintiff did not state a claim under Title IX.
Addressing the sovereign immunity question, the court reviewed the history of the Equal Pay Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1963 as an amendment to the FLSA.
The legal question the court had to consider was the “private enforcement provision of the FLSA, of which the EPA is a part, provides that ‘an action to recover the liability prescribed . . . may be maintained against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated.’ 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).”
By contrast, the Eleventh Amendment doctrine of sovereign immunity bars actions for damages against a State, its agencies and its officials acting in their official capacities. “ESU contends that in enacting the EPA, Congress did not validly abrogate its sovereign immunity,” wrote the judge.
The pivotal case in the court’s decision appeared to be Kovacevich v. Kent State Univ., 224 F.3d 806, 816 (6th Cir. 2000), because it validated the findings of other courts that the EPA constituted a proper abrogation of Eleventh Amendment immunity.
”The Court specifically adopts the analyses with respect to the congruence and proportionality test and concludes that Congress validly exercised its authority under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment when it extended the EPA to claims against the States. The Court therefore finds that Congress’ abrogation of State immunity pursuant to the EPA is proper and that ESU’s alleged violation of the EPA is not shielded by the Eleventh Amendment.”
The court next turned to the defendant’s other relevant argument that the plaintiff does not have a “private remedy under Title IX or its implementing regulations.”
The plaintiff’s chief counter to this was Franklin v. Gwinnett County Pub. Schs., 503 U.S. 60, 117 L. Ed. 2d 208, 112 S. Ct. 1028 (1992), which it argued successfully gave federal courts the authority to enforce Title IX damage remedies against State agencies.
The court, therefore, overruled ESU’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims under Title IX. Mehus v. Emporia State University, CIVIL ACTION No. 03-2066-KHV
D.Kan.; 1/15/04
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) R. Denise Henning, LEAD ATTORNEY, Stephen R. Bough, LEAD ATTORNEY, Henning & Bough, PC, Kansas City, MO. (for defendant) William Scott Hesse, LEAD ATTORNEY, Office of Attorney General, Topeka, KS.


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