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Jury selection starts today in Shannon Miller's lawsuit against UMD

Shannon Miller (left) is accompanied by attorney Dan Siegel (center) as she walks into the Federal Courthouse in Duluth for a pre-trial conference Monday morning. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 2
Shannon Miller (left), accompanied by attorney Jane Brunner, walks to the Federal Courthouse Monday morning for a pre-trial conference. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 2

DULUTH—A federal judge on Monday, March 5, sought to narrow the focus of evidence in the discrimination lawsuit brought against the University of Minnesota Duluth by former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller.

Judge Patrick Schiltz spent nearly three hours meeting with attorneys on the eve of the long-awaited trial in U.S. District Court in Duluth. The judge did not outright exclude any potential witnesses, but he did place some parameters for the introduction of expert testimony and other evidence that could be heard by jurors.

Miller, who coached the UMD women's hockey program for 16 seasons and won five national championships, is suing the university claiming sex discrimination and retaliation in the December 2014 decision not to renew her contract.

Miller, who is now living in California, was in attendance at the final pretrial conference, as was UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo, who plays a prominent role in the defense.

Schiltz repeatedly expressed concern about the scope of the case to be presented by Miller. He said briefs filed by her attorneys indicate that they will introduce myriad evidence of alleged discrimination and discrepancies between men's and women's sports at UMD.

The judge last month dismissed a number of additional claims from the case, including all counts pertaining to two additional plaintiffs. The two surviving counts from Miller allege that she was let go because she is a woman and had filed complaints about Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equality in college athletics.

But the judge stressed that the jury is not actually being asked to decide whether UMD was in compliance with Title IX.

"I'm concerned that the plaintiff's attorneys have done almost nothing to narrow their focus in this case," Schiltz said. "There's one main issue in this case, and that's what was on (Chancellor Lendley) Black and Berlo's minds when they made the decision not to renew Ms. Miller's contract."

Meanwhile, the judge said many of UMD's requests to exclude evidence were "overreaching." He said employment case law is clear that Miller has a right to present so-called "me too" evidence of other discrimination in the workplace.

"The defense would have me exclude essentially every piece of 'me too' evidence that the 8th Circuit has told me I should freely allow," Schiltz said. "Ms. Miller needs the freedom to prove her case."

The judge stressed that he was imposing a limit of 20 hours of "jury time" for each side, which he said should encourage attorneys to focus their efforts. He said he would rule on the admissibility of disputed evidence on a case-by-case basis.

The judge also said he would allow each side to call expert witnesses, but he placed some restrictions on their testimony. Schiltz said the university can call an expert who is expected to address Miller's employment prospects and the job market, but she will not be allowed to opine about the adequacy of Miller's efforts to secure a career after UMD.

The judge also said Miller can call her own expert to testify about the landscape of college athletics and how administrators can work through budgetary issues, but she won't be able to express opinions about UMD's Title IX status.

Jury selection gets underway Tuesday morning, March 6, with Schiltz conducting questioning of potential jurors. Although the case could be heard by as few as six jurors, the judge said Monday that he would seat a 12-member panel.

Opening statements and witness testimony could begin later on Tuesday. The case is expected to go to the jury, which must reach a unanimous decision, no later than Wednesday, March 14.