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Questions remain after $3.74 million verdict in favor of UMD coach Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller lifts her fists in the air as she exits the federal courthouse with her lead attorney, Dan Siegel, on March 15 after winning her discrimination lawsuit against UMD. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

DULUTH — A federal jury's $3.74 million verdict in favor of former University of Minnesota Duluth coach Shannon Miller provided a dramatic conclusion to a two-week trial in March.

The decision, however, provided little closure in what has been a yearslong legal battle. In fact, nearly four months later, that dollar figure has yet to be finalized and university attorneys are still waiting for an opportunity to challenge the verdict.

But before any of that can happen, U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz must still make one key ruling.

Over the next several months, he will be asked to determine whether Miller should be reinstated to the post that she held for 16 years, or, in the alternative, receive additional compensation for the future wages and benefits she lost as a result of her December 2014 non-renewal.

Despite the hostilities involved in prolonged litigation, Dan Siegel, an attorney representing Miller, said he does not believe reinstatement to be an unreasonable request.

"It's a complicated issue, but under the law reinstatement is a preferred remedy," he said. "Our argument is that Shannon is a world-class hockey coach who has not been able to find suitable replacement employment."

The university, for its part, has vowed to contest the jury's verdict and expressed no desire to welcome Miller back. Aside from deteriorated relationships, officials note that her replacement is already locked in under contract until 2022.

"Reinstatement of Shannon Miller is not a realistic option, legally or factually," Chancellor Lendley Black said. "I am exceptionally satisfied with the leadership of Coach Maura Crowell along with the current culture and future of our women's hockey program."

The jury was responsible for determining whether whether Miller was subjected to discrimination on the basis of her sex and retaliation for engaging in protected activity under Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equality in academic settings.

Jurors found UMD liable on both counts, awarding $744,832 in past lost wages and benefits and $3 million for past emotional distress, but nothing for future emotional distress.

Future lost wages and benefits — also known as front pay — can only be awarded by a judge.

That issue is always a difficult one, said David Larson, a professor who teaches employment discrimination and labor law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

Courts are generally reluctant to order reinstatement when the position has already been filled, he said. Additionally, any employment lawsuit creates hostility between the worker and the employer.

"Reinstatement shouldn't be considered completely out of the question," Larson said, "but you definitely have to look at what that relationship would be like and whether a replacement has already been hired."

An "equitable remedy" in lieu of reinstatement is the awarding of front pay. But the process is highly subjective, Larson explained, because the judge is asked to speculate how the employee's career would have played out if not for a discriminatory termination.

He said the judge would have to consider Miller's age and how many years she likely would have continued coaching at UMD, as well as projecting her salary for that timespan.

Additionally, the judge would have to factor in mitigation — salary and benefits that Miller has earned or would earn from other jobs that she could reasonably obtain since leaving UMD. And then economic calculations must be made to adjust for inflation and interest.

"That's why (judges) like reinstatement better," Larson said. "It's a lot more clear than this."

Miller and her attorneys have argued that she was shut out from the limited market of Division I coaching jobs since suing the school. University officials, on the other hand, have questioned the adequacy of her efforts to seek new employment.

After leaving UMD in June 2015, Miller and her partner launched a startup pedal pub business in Palm Springs, Calif., which they said had yet to turn a profit

Last month, Miller was named head coach of the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Siegel said that job pays in the $30,000 range, compared to the more than $200,000 in annual salary she was receiving at UMD.

Schiltz ordered briefs to be submitted by both sides on the issue of reinstatement and front pay. He is likely to make a decision some time this fall.

Once the judge enters formal judgment, the defense intends to bring a motion to set aside the jury's verdict, said Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the university.

UMD seeks to dismiss state case

That is only half the battle.

At the state level, another judge will soon rule on a crucial motion in a separate case brought by Miller and two other women alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Fourth Judicial District Judge Daniel Moreno will hear oral arguments July 12 in Minneapolis on the university's motion to dismiss the case, which was filed in March by Miller, former softball coach and women's hockey director of operations Jen Banford and former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles.

The case was brought the same afternoon that the federal jury ruled in Miller's favor. Schiltz earlier dismissed a number of claims from the federal case — including all counts pertaining to Banford and Wiles — ruling in the university's favor on some claims but saying he lacked jurisdiction to hear other issues, including the sexual orientation claims.

In an 18-page brief filed in State District Court, defense attorneys argued that the claims are barred because they were either already decided by the federal judge or because they were filed too late.

Additionally, the attorneys contended that Miller could stand to obtain a "double recovery for the same injury" in wake of the federal verdict.

Siegel, Miller's attorney, said the plaintiffs will be filing a response to the motion this week. He said Schiltz clearly did not rule on the sexual orientation issues, and contended that any time requirements for bringing the claims were suspended while the case was pending in federal court.

Siegel added that Miller is not intending to "double dip" because the sum she ultimately receives at the federal level will be credited toward any payment UMD is ordered to make in the state case.

The state suit alleges five counts for each plaintiff: discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, creation of a hostile work environment and reprisal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, as well as violations of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Law and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.

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