Class Status Granted in Connecticut Volleyball Lawsuit

May 26, 2010

A federal judge has granted class action status to a lawsuit filed by members of Quinnipiac University’s volleyball team alleging gender discrimination in the school’s athletic programs.

Judge Stefan Underhill’s ruling means if he finds Title IX violations, he could order remedies for all current and future female athletes at the school, not just the five members of the team who sued. He rejected an attempt to add non-students who would have been deterred from enrolling at Quinnipiac as part of that class.

Quinnipiac, a private university in Hamden with 5,400 undergraduate and 2,000 graduate students, last year sought to drop volleyball and add women’s cheerleading as a sport, prompting the lawsuit from several players and volleyball coach Robin Sparks.

The school fought against the class action, arguing that some female athletes at the school, especially the cheerleaders, would not want to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But the judge, in a ruling dated May 20, rejected that argument, saying the class would only consist of those seeking an end to the discrimination.

“Presumably, current, prospective or future female students who are injured by the gender disparity in Quinnipiac’s athletics offerings would want the university to remedy that imbalance,” he wrote.

Attorney Jon Orleans, representing the players and coach, said the ruling confirms the significance of the lawsuit for women’s athletics at Quinnipiac.

“It’s not just about volleyball,” he said. “It’s about making sure the university provides genuine and equitable participation opportunities to all of its female varsity athletes.”

The volleyball team was reinstated after the judge last year issued a temporary injunction and found the plaintiffs were likely to win at trial. But settlement talks were unsuccessful.

Two of the original plaintiffs have graduated from the school, and three remain on the team.

Messages seeking comment were left Monday with the school’s attorney and a spokeswoman.

In issuing the injunction a year ago, the judge said he found that the school had engaged in roster manipulation to improve reports it submits to the U.S. Department of Education to meet gender equity goals.

The men’s baseball and lacrosse teams would drop players before the reporting date and reinstate them after the reports were submitted. The women’s softball team would add players before the reporting date, knowing the additional players would not be on the team in the spring.

School officials have said those practices were stopped.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs also plan to ask the judge to clarify how rosters can be counted. Women who run track at Quinnipiac, for example, are counted three times, as members of the indoor, outdoor and cross-country teams.

Quinnipiac eliminated men’s indoor and outdoor track to help meet numbers for Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunities for female athletes. But the plaintiffs argue all track athletes should be counted just once.

The lawsuit also could help settle the issue of whether cheerleading should be considered a sport for Title IX compliance.

The judge, in issuing the injunction last year, said he found that competitive cheer “although not presently an NCAA recognized sport or emerging sport, has all the necessary characteristics of a potentially valid competitive sport.”

The trial is set to begin on June 21.

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