Appeals panel revives North Dakota women's hockey lawsuit

An effort by 11 former University of North Dakota women's hockey players to bring back the program that was dropped in 2017 got new life on Tuesday when the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the players' lawsuit.

The original complaint alleged that when the Grand Forks school dropped hockey it violated Title IX laws that prohibit women from being treated differently because of gender. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland said the suit did not show a “substantial disproportionality” between men’s and women’s athletic opportunities in relation to the respective enrollments of men and women.

The players appealed in October and a three-judge panel ruled that the athletes may be able to state an actionable Title IX claim and have the case sent back to district court.

The school said in a statement that the 8th Circuit opinion “does not reach the substance” of its decision to eliminate women's hockey.

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“The Court did not suggest that UND’s decision was wrong, but rather relied upon a narrow textualist rationale in reversing the District Court,” the statement said. “We remain confident that UND’s decision will ultimately be upheld. UND’s actions were legally permissible and were in the best financial interests of the University.”

School administrators cited budget woes due to decreased support from the state when they dropped women’s hockey, as well as men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Prior to the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights dismissed two discrimination complaints related to the decision to get rid of women’s hockey.

The players said in their suit that the hockey program was “the most prominent and popular sport” for women at North Dakota. The team reached the NCAA quarterfinals two straight years when future U.S. Olympic stars Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux were on the roster. Several other former North Dakota players participated in the Olympics.

Attorney Daniel Siegel, who represented the players in the original lawsuit, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He said earlier that the issue should not be decided solely on proportionality but also on context.

“What I mean by that is that we’re not talking about the University of Miami, we’re talking about the University of North Dakota in a state and in a region where ice hockey is the most popular sport,” he said. “And girls and women are increasingly playing ice hockey, whether it’s at the high school, club or college level.

“Under these circumstances, we think that it’s apparent that the University of North Dakota is not treating female athletes as well as male athletes and we should be allowed to prove that,” he said before the appeal was filed.