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Judge narrows UMD coaches' suit: Miller facing federal trial alone, but hope remains for Banford and Wiles

DULUTH — A federal judge on Thursday, Feb. 1, threw out significant portions of an $18 million discrimination lawsuit brought against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women's sports coaches, including all claims from two of the plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said only Shannon Miller, the ousted longtime women's hockey coach, can proceed to trial next month on allegations that she was subjected to gender discrimination and Title IX retaliation.

Schiltz granted summary judgment to UMD on all claims brought by former softball coach and women's hockey director of operations Jen Banford and former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles — though they still have recourse in state court.

UMD representatives welcomed the decision as a significant victory in its defense of the now yearslong lawsuit, though attorneys for the former coaches cautioned that the case is far from settled.

The ruling was largely in line with comments made by Schiltz when he heard oral arguments on the summary judgment motion on Oct. 30. After that hearing, attorneys on both sides speculated that the case would be narrowed to some core claims.

"We are pleased that a substantial portion of the plaintiffs' claims have been dismissed," Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the university, said in a statement Thursday. "The lawsuit began with three plaintiffs each asserting eight counts against the University. As a result of the judge's summary judgment decision in our favor, we now face only one plaintiff and two counts."

Dan Siegel, a San Francisco attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the order brought "good news and bad news." He noted that portions of the university's motion were granted only due to a lack of jurisdiction, and not merit.

"The good news is the three plaintiffs may pursue their sexual orientation and whistleblower claims in state court," Siegel told the News Tribune. "So we intend to refile and pursue those claims there. The other important news is that Coach Miller may pursue her (gender) discrimination and Title IX claims in federal court, and she will do so starting March 5."

Miller going to trial

Schiltz said Miller, who brought five national championships to UMD, "may be the most accomplished women's hockey coach in the history of college athletics." UMD's December 2014 decision not to renew her contract after 16 seasons sparked public controversy.

University officials initially stated that Miller was being let go due to financial considerations, but later cited additional factors including declining athletic and academic performance from her team.

Schiltz was unconvinced by the shifting rationale. He said a reasonable jury could conclude that:

  • Men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin had his contract renewed despite comparable, or worse, performance.
  • UMD applied different criteria in deciding to renew Sandelin's contract.
  • Administrators involved in the decision to not renew Miller's contract offered inconsistent explanations.
  • UMD's financial situation was not as dire as officials claimed.
  • The school did not ask Miller to take a pay cut in lieu of termination or pursue funds from donors who expressed interest in supplementing her salary.

The judge also cited the fact that Miller routinely complained about alleged disparities between men's and women's programs throughout her tenure. He said the jury could use that as evidence to possibly conclude that she was subjected to Title IX retaliation.

"Looking at the record in its entirety, the court concludes that, although the evidence supporting Miller's Title IX retaliation claim is thin, Miller has sufficient evidence to avoid summary judgment," the judge wrote in a 35-page order.

Pramas said the university was prepared to fight Miller's allegations at trial.

"As for the two remaining counts, the judge decided that a jury, in its function as finder of fact, needs to resolve the disputed facts," he said. "The University believes the evidence clearly shows there was no discrimination and we will aggressively defend ourselves at trial."

Banford, Wiles cases dismissed

The decision marked the end of the road for Banford and Wiles in federal court.

Both submitted their resignations within six months of Miller's non-renewal, echoing Miller's comments about a hostile work environment and an unequal playing field for women's sports at UMD.

Banford was informed at the time of Miller's non-renewal that her role as hockey operations director would come to an end. University officials said that was a standard move with a change in head coaches, but that they always intended to retain Banford as softball coach.

Schiltz said he saw no evidence to the contrary, writing that Banford offered "scant" argument that she was forced from her softball position.

The judge also was skeptical of Banford's claim that she was treated unfairly due to her gender.

"Banford has a long list of complaints — some bordering on petty — about the way that she was treated by UMD, including (to cite just a few examples) fights over budgets, fights over equipment, fights over field usage, fights over the location of her office, and fights over how to address certain issues involving certain student athletes," Schiltz wrote.

"None of the matters about which Banford complains have an apparent connection to the fact that she is female; to the contrary, they seem to be the types of disputes that are ubiquitous in college athletics departments."

The judge said none of the women provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate that they were subjected to a hostile work environment or violations of the Equal Pay Act.

As for Wiles, he said her case seemed to focus on sexual orientation — with claims that athletic director Josh Berlo turned hostile toward her after she spoke at a National Coming Out Day luncheon.

"The story told by Wiles strongly suggests that whatever hostility she experienced was related to her sexual orientation, not her sex," Schiltz wrote.

Sexual orientation issue remains

Despite the dismissal of their cases, Banford and Wiles may still have their day in court.

At the October hearing and in his order, Schiltz repeatedly opined that claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation may be the strongest argument the plaintiffs have. But the judge said those claims must be pursued in state court, and not at the federal level.

While the plaintiffs noted that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year became the first federal court to hold that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a 1989 decision to the opposite effect remains binding for the 8th Circuit, which includes Minnesota.

However, state legislation — the Minnesota Human Rights Act — does explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"To be clear: Plaintiffs could have pursued their state‐law claims — including their MHRA sexual‐orientation claims — in state court," Schiltz wrote. "But, for reasons that are not apparent, plaintiffs chose to bring those claims in federal court, despite the fact that plaintiffs knew (or should have known) that a federal court would have no jurisdiction over them."

Siegel said he expects to refile those claims in State District Court soon. He said the process should move fairly quickly, as much of the legal work has already occurred, though he expressed disappointment in how the issue was handled.

"The university consented to have the state law claims heard in federal court and could've brought it up much sooner," Siegel said. "I don't know if they thought it was a tactical advance to wait until summary judgement, or why they didn't bring it up sooner, but that cost us some time. If they had made that objection earlier, we would be that much closer to trial in state court. But it is what it is."

Trial looms

Miller's remaining claims will be heard by a jury at the federal courthouse in Duluth, in a trial that has been scheduled to last up to two weeks.

A pretrial settlement conference is also set for next Wednesday before Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois, though previous settlement talks have been unsuccessful.

UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said Thursday's order was an "encouraging" sign as the university prepares for trial, nearly two and a half years after the case was first filed.

"UMD leadership continues to be proud of our Bulldog athletics program," Williams said in a statement, "and are confident that our legal team will present a strong and compelling case at the trial."

Siegel said the order ensures that litigation will continue in the courts for some time. While Miller now faces the federal trial alone, he stressed that all three women will continue the fight together at the state level.

"It is important to all three of them to have their cases resolved on the merits," Siegel said. "While the judge ruled that he lacks the jurisdiction to resolve the sexual orientation claims, he did say those are perhaps the strongest claims we have."

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