Central Coast high school, female football player settle lawsuit alleging gender bias

A federal judge is expected to approve a settlement agreement for a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Cuyama Valley female football player against a private Christian school that refused to schedule games due to the girl’s participation in the traditionally male team sport.

The lawsuit filed in September 2021 in federal court by Sonya Herrera, on behalf of her daughter, a player identified as E.H., named Valley Christian Academy, First Baptist Church, Joel Mikkelson, VCA superintendent and the church’s lead pastor, and several unnamed defendants.

At the time, E.H. was one of two wide receivers on the varsity team for Cuyama Valley High School, which competes in eight-person football. She was the lone girl on the team.

The issue stemmed from a game in March 2021 — the delayed football season held in the spring due to the pandemic — at the Santa Maria Valley school’s campus where E.H. played the entire game as wide receiver without issue.

In addition to gawking at the plaintiff in disgust “as if she were some kind of spectacle” after she removed her helmet, VCA changed its football schedule because of Cuyama’s female player.

“This action arises out of the abhorrent, intentional, and gross discrimination against plaintiff, a female student athlete enrolled at Cuyama Valley High School (Cuyama Valley), by defendants’ antiquated, misogynistic ideals and policies through which defendants sought to minimize plaintiff’s athletic ability and deprive her of athletic opportunities strictly due to her gender,” the lawsuit states.

Specifically, the lawsuit listed five claims, including violation of Title IX for sex discrimination and/or hostile environment; 14th Amendment violation of the equal protection rights; violation of the California Education Code; and violation of the Civil Rights Act along with intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Before the parties agreed to the settlement, a judge had dismissed part of the complaint at the request of the defendants, including civil rights violation allegations and claims against Mikkelson as an individual.

However, the judge denied the request to dismiss claims related to Title IX or the Education Code violations, keeping that part of the lawsuit alive.

In July, U.S. District Judge Madame Ewusi-Mensah Frimpong is expected to approve the settlement and dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice.

Under the $20,000 pact, the girl will receive $11,040.40 while the attorneys will get $8,959.60, according to documents filed in the case.

Her attorneys, from the firms Palay & Hefelfinger in Ventura and Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP in New York and Palo Alto, also suggested that since the girl will turn 18 in August, the funds would not need to be placed in a trust due to the short time span.

VCA and First Baptist Church were represented by a Pasadena law firm, Charis Lex PC.

The agreement also says the defendants “deny all liability, wrongdoing or fault.”

As part of the settlement, they also agreed to a five-paragraph joint statement about the end of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claimed Valley Christian Academy “violated Title IX and the California Education Code by refusing to play football against a team solely because the team included a female player.

“As in any litigation, the parties engage in discovery, and each side learns facts of which they were unaware before the litigation,” the statement says in part.

“Valley Christian Academy maintains its refusal to play Cuyama Valley High School was based on First Baptist’s and Valley Christian’s understanding of biblical principles governing how men are to treat women,” the statement says.

“Valley Christian Academy continues to maintain that Title IX did not apply to it or its actions in this matter.

“Plaintiff and defendants wish each other the best in the future and look forward to putting this incident behind them,” the statement added.

Last fall, VCA refused to play games against Coast Union High School in San Luis Obispo County because the team had two girls on its roster.

The VCA Lions agreed to a forfeit rather than meet the mixed-gender Coast Union Broncos team on the field.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.