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Female Ref Gets Another Shot at Suing the NJ Basketball Boys Club

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 22, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Tamika Covington just wants to ref boys’ high school varsity basketball games.

After more than 10 years as a basketball official in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Covington sued various entities that have some role in high school athletics in New Jersey, alleging gender employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The district court dismissed her claims against all the defendants with prejudice, holding Covington had not adequately alleged facts sufficient to establish an employer-employee or other relationship necessary to hold defendants liable under Title VII. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal against some of the defendants, but sent the case back to the district court for further pleading with regard to the rest.

The essence of Covington's claim is that Board 193 has not assigned her to officiate at boys' regular season games because of its policy discriminating against women, that New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association has not assigned her to officiate at boys' post-season games for the same reason, and that the other defendants have assisted in that policy. Despite the absence or scarcity of women referees assigned to boys' varsity games, none of the defendants has conceded that it employed a policy to exclude females from a position officiating in boys? basketball tournaments and there is no document that so provides. In the absence of any written policy, Covington alleges a pattern and practice of discrimination.

Here, the outcome of Covington's appeal turned on whether she had stated a plausible claim for relief. Covington's attorney relied on a 1998 district court case -- Kemether v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association -- to establish plausibility. (Kemether also involved a female ref who sued to officiate high school boys' basketball games.) The appellate court noted:

In dismissing Covington's original complaint, the district court did not conceal its disrespect for the Kemether opinion. We believe that opinion was entitled to more serious regard than it was given by the district court in light of the similarity of the structure of the sport in the two states, the plaintiffs' claims, and the jury verdict for Kemether in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

On remand, Covington will have another opportunity to plead more facts against the remaining defendants.

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