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

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

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UND's Emma Nuuitinen and Minnesota's Megan Wolf skate to the puck during a 2016 game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. ERIC HYLDEN/GRAND FORKS HERALD
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GRAND FORKS -- 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.

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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.”

In a statement Tuesday evening, the university said: the opinion by the Eighth Circuit "does not reach the substance" of the university's "decision to eliminate its women’s hockey team" in 2017.

"The court did not suggest that UND’s decision was wrong, but rather relied upon a narrow textualist rationale in reversing the District Court. 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," the statement said.

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A message left for the attorneys for the eight plaintiffs – former players Breanna Berndsen, Kristen Campbell, Charly Dahlquist, Taylor Flaherty, Ryleigh Houston, Anna Kilponen, Rebekah Kolstad, Sarah Lecavalier, Alyssa MacMillan, Annelise Rice and Abigail Stanley – wasn’t immediately returned.

While hockey has long been a prominent program on campus for the men – UND has won eight NCAA national championships and sent more than 100 players to the NHL – it didn’t have a women’s program until 2002.

It was launched a year after Ralph Engelstad Arena opened, but lasted just 15 seasons. The school eliminated it in 2017 due to budget cuts under former President Mark Kennedy.

The women’s hockey program had a rocky start in its first few years playing in the powerful Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but eventually began attracting some of the world’s best players under coach Brian Idalski, who will coach the Chinese Olympic Team in February.

UND reached two NCAA tournaments in 2012 and 2013, coming within a goal of the NCAA Frozen Four in 2013.

The program also produced 10 Olympians. Grand Forks natives Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux were the most prominent. The twin sisters led the United States to Olympic gold in 2018 and Olympic silver in 2010 and 2014.

Three other former UND players have won Olympic medals. Michelle Karvinen won two bronze medals with Finland in 2010 and 2018, while Susanna Tapani and Emma Nuutinen joined Karvinen on the 2018 bronze medal-winning Finnish squad.

Other Olympians were Finland’s Anna Kilponen and Vilma Tanskanen, Germany’s Tanja Eisenschmid and Susanne Fellner and Sweden’s Johanna Fallman.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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