How a failed Title IX lawsuit will have lasting impact on future cases

On Aug. 11, a jury ruled against two former women's basketball players from Pepperdine University who had sued the school and the team's coach, alleging discrimination because of their sexual orientation and claiming their Title IX rights had been violated. The jury said the plaintiffs didn't have sufficient evidence to prove they were targeted.

The original complaint said that Layana White and Haley Videckis were the subject of rumors about their relationship with each other, and that they received unfair treatment from trainers and an academic coordinator. They claimed coach Ryan Weisenberg refused to help them stop the rumors because he believed they were in a relationship and would therefore cause damage to the team. The players also claimed Weisenberg wanted them off the team for that reason.

White and Videckis left the university in December 2014 before filing a lawsuit against the school and Weisenberg that same month.

But even though the former players failed in their lawsuit, their case has implications for Title IX.

The case marks one of the first times courts have considered sexual orientation as a point of discrimination under Title IX.

Since it was enacted in 1972, Title IX has protected students from sex-based discrimination in education. And in the past five years, the interpretation of sex-based discrimination has expanded through Dear Colleague letters and policy updates issued by federal government agencies. (See our Evolution of Title IX timeline.) 

After White and Videckis filed their lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson ruled in 2015 that the case could proceed because sexual orientation discrimination falls under the purview of Title IX. He related the law to Title VII, which protects against employment discrimination, and to Title VII's existing case law that says gender-stereotype discrimination is considered sex-based discrimination.

Specifically, Pregerson wrote, "Sexual orientation discrimination is not a category distinct from sex or gender discrimination. Thus, claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation are covered by Title VII and Title IX." 

Students experiencing sexual orientation discrimination now have a path for recourse in the courts.

Even though the women didn't prevail, a U.S. District Court judge linked sexual orientation discrimination to sex and gender discrimination, creating a powerful precedent. Pregerson's ruling put into case law that sexual orientation discrimination is covered under Title VII and Title IX, which is stronger than a policy change within a federal agency and/or a Dear Colleague letter.

The case is relevant as states continue to debate LGBTQ protections.

The question of what constitutes sex-based discrimination will continue to be relevant, particularly as states across the U.S. grapple with bathroom-access laws for transgender students. Though White and Videckis' lawsuit didn't specifically address transgender topics, it's another important development in the ongoing debate about defining sex-based discrimination and how LGBTQ students are included (or not included) in Title IX protections.

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