University of North Dakota women’s hockey lawsuit should be reviewed again, Eighth Circuit court says

Two years after being dismissed, a lawsuit filed against the North Dakota University System involving the now-shuttered UND women’s hockey team seems to have new life.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed a decision made in 2019 by the North Dakota District Court to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of former UND women’s hockey team members.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision sends the case back to the North Dakota District Court for further review.

“After the University of North Dakota cut its women’s ice hockey team — but not its men’s ice hockey team — the former players sued the university system for violating Title IX, the ban on sex discrimination at federally-funded institutions. … The district court granted the University’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. We reverse,” Judge David R. Stras wrote.

The lawsuit, which claimed UND violated Title IX when it cut the women’s hockey program in 2017, was dismissed in federal court in June 2019 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.

The Herald previously has reported that 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.

The appeal was filed in October 2020.

The Eighth Circuit decision rests heavily on the district court’s reasons for dismissing the complaint, including the district court’s interpretation of Title IX compliance. The 24-page court document dives deep into differences between a 1979 and a 1996 interpretation of compliance.

“Ultimately, we conclude that the district court’s primary reasons for dismissing the complaint rested on an incorrect view of the law,” the court document said. But given a level playing field, or in this case, a properly smoothed ice rink, the athletes may be able to state an actionable Title IX claim.”

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