Champion Lesbian Hockey Coach Gets Her Day In Court

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By Porter Wells

Five-time NCAA National Championship-winning women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller will go to trial on her claim that the University of Minnesota–Duluth didn’t renew her coaching contract because of her sex. But Miller won’t be able to litigate whether her sexual orientation had anything to do with it, the U.S. District Court for Minnesota ordered.

The ruling is the latest to reinforce a federal circuit split on whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects against sexual-orientation discrimination. The Seventh Circuit opened the door to such claims in its 2017 Hivley decision. The First Circuit recently upheld a jury verdict in favor of a lesbian former firefighter because the anti-lesbian harassment she faced was integrally linked to her sex.

But the Eighth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Minnesota, has not interpreted Title VII to protect employees from sexual orientation discrimination by their employers. As a result, the District Court of Minnesota “is bound by the decisions of the Eighth Circuit,” Judge Patrick Schiltz said in the order filed February 1, 2018.

Shannon Miller and her two co-plaintiffs, women’s softball coach Jen Banford and women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles, all identify as lesbian women. They worked at the University coaching student athletes.

Schiltz said sufficient evidence exists in the record to support Miller’s arguments that the University treated her differently than other similarly situated male coaches as it decided which coaching contracts to renew, and that the University retaliated against her in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 when she complained. So Miller is entitled to a trial on the merits, Shiltz said. None of Banford and Wiles’ claims, however, survived the University’s motion for summary judgment.

University Officials ‘Pleased’

“We are pleased that a substantial portion of the plaintiffs’ claims have been dismissed, said Tim Pramas, the university’s senior associate general counsel. “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.”

“The judge’s ruling is encouraging and we are pleased,” Lynne Williams, marketing and public relations director at the university, told Bloomberg Law. “UMD leadership continues to be proud of our Bulldog athletics program and are confident that our legal team will present a strong and compelling case at the trial.”

Dismissed plaintiffs Banford and Wiles’s strongest claims are for sexual orientation discrimination but Schiltz said that they should not have been filed in federal court.

Those claims will be refiled in state court, according to Dan Siegal of Siegal & Yee, one of the two firms representing the plaintiffs. As for Miller’s sex bias and retaliation claims that survived the University’s motion for summary judgment, Siegal told Bloomberg Law that the legal team is looking forward to trying those claims before Judge Schiltz in March. The other law firm retained as counsel for the plaintiffs, Fafinski Mark & Johnson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case marks yet another iteration of claims that women are treated inequitably in the sports world. In 2016, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying that the U.S. Soccer Federation violated Title VII by paying them significantly less than the men’s team.

The case is Miller v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Minn., Minn. Dist. Ct., No. 15-CV-3740, 2/1/18.

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