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Soccer player’s sex harassment suit revived

Apparently the “take it like a man” defense has limits when it comes to women’s sports.

When Melissa Jennings played soccer for the legendary women’s team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she tried to keep a low profile as coach Anson Dorrance indulged in sexual banter with team members during warm-ups. According to Jennings, Dorrance liked to get up close and personal with his players, speculating on their sexual interests and practices, and sharing his own freewheeling fantasies about his players.

But Jennings could no longer duck Dorrance’s attention when he asked her in a hotel room whether her love life was interfering with her grades. After Dorrance cut her from the team, Jennings sued the university under Title IX and sued Dorrance and the university’s lawyer for sexual harassment. A year ago, a 4th Circuit panel upheld summary judgment for the defendants.

The panel indicated that coaches – who use profanity, slang, sarcasm and “ham-handed humor” to make their points – may have more leeway in a locker room than in a classroom. Such “lapses in linguistic gentility” don’t necessarily equate to a sexually hostile environment, the panel said.

What a difference a year, and a full court, makes.

Yesterday the en banc court vacated summary judgment for three defendants in Jennings v. University of North Carolina (VLW 007-2-054). The court said that Jennings could proceed on her Title IX claim against UNC, and on her § 1983 claim against the coach for sexual harassment and her claim against the university lawyer for supervisory liability. The court said that Jennings had enough evidence to get in front of a jury, but the district court should first consider the coach’s and lawyer’s claims to qualified immunity.

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