Eighth Circuit Reverses District Court and Its Finding that University Violated Title IX

Mar 11, 2022

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court, which had found that St. Cloud University violated Title IX when it failed to properly allocate athletic participation opportunities and benefits to female athletes at SCSU.

Specifically, it found that trial court incorrectly required equity at each tier of participation, rather than across the entire program as it should have.

LITIGATION HISTORY

Portz arose from preliminary and permanent injunctions that dated to 2016. The underlying claim was brought by female student-athletes who were current or former members of the women’s tennis team or women’s Nordic ski team at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). Plaintiffs represented a certified class of present, prospective, and future female athletes who challenged the allocation of athletic participation opportunities and the allocation of benefits provided to varsity athletes at SCSU.[1]

Plaintiffs filed suit after SCSU eliminated the men’s and women’s tennis teams, as well as the women’s Nordic ski team, in March 2016.[2] Six days after announcing those decisions, the school notified the ski team coach that his contract would not be renewed.

On July 25, 2016, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota granted a preliminary injunction as to women’s tennis, enjoining the school from eliminating the team, involuntarily reducing its coaching staff, reducing financial support for the team, and restricting or denying access by the women’s team to facilities, training or competitive opportunities.

In August 2016, the parties stipulated to extend the preliminary injunction to include the women’s Nordic ski team. The amended injunction permitted SCSU to make changes to the ski team’s coaching staff but otherwise included the same restrictions that applied to the tennis team.

The court conducted a bench trial in late 2018 and issued an Order in August 2019 which concluded that SCSU had not complied with Title IX in its allocation of athletic participation opportunities, treatments, and benefits, dating to at least 2014. The court entered a permanent injunction, requiring the school to maintain women’s tennis and Nordic skiing in a manner comparable with other teams at SCSU. The court further ordered SCSU to amend the distribution of participation opportunities and take immediate steps to provide female athletes with equitable treatment and benefits through improvements to locker rooms, practice areas, and competition facilities.

The appeal

The university appealed the decision.

In its analysis, the panel agreed with the university that the district court’s treatment-and-benefits “analysis suffers from multiple defects.”

For one, “the district court concluded that the University failed to provide equitable treatment and distribution of benefits among the tiers of its program and that this failure violates Title IX.  It began its analysis of treatment and benefits by stating:

[The University] has three tiers of support for its sports programs. On a global level, treatment and benefits are not equitable because substantially fewer women benefited from the Tier 1 level of support than men.  Tier 1 teams generally have adequate or better equipment, supplies, locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities, and medical training   facilities. . ..     The substantial inequity results from a disproportionate number of male athletes benefitting from the better treatment and benefits conferred on Tier 1 teams over Tier 2 and 3 teams. . .. For an institution to meet Title IX’s treatment and benefits requirement when it creates different tiers of support for its teams, a substantially equivalent number of men and women should be in each tier and receive the same quality of benefits and treatment.

“That paragraph reveals the district court improperly relied on the tiers finding to conclude that ‘[o]n a global level’ the University inequitably allocated treatment and benefits between men’s and women’s sports,” wrote the panel. “Doing so amounted to legal error.”

What the lower court should have done, according to the panel, is analyze how the university distributes treatment and benefits across the entire program.

Thus, it reversed the ruling and remanded case for further proceedings.

Portz v. SCSU; 8th Circuit; No. 19-2921; 10/28/21


[1] Plaintiffs also named as a defendant Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, whose members include SCSU.

[2] SCSU reinstated the women’s tennis team and Nordic ski team in response to the preliminary injunction but did not reinstate the men’s tennis team.