Ex-Minnesota Women’s Hockey Coach Scores $3.7M for Bias (1)

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Porter Wells and Patrick Dorrian

Shannon Miller won five national championships as coach of the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team. Now she’s won a $3.7 million jury verdict against the school on allegations that her contract wasn’t renewed because of her sex and because she complained that the school didn’t treat her team the same as its men’s hockey program.

The March 15 verdict is a victory for women, “especially women in college athletics,” Miller said at a news conference on the courthouse steps.

The case marks yet another iteration of claims that women are treated inequitably in the sports world. Miller is hoping to break down some of those barriers. Asked what’s next for her career, Miller joked that she’ll be “looking on LinkedIn for hockey jobs.” Then, more seriously, she said that she “would love to be the first female hockey coach in the NHL.”

“There’s lots of men coaching in women’s athletics. I absolutely see no reason why women can’t coach in men’s athletics,” she said.

UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said in a statement that he respectfully disagrees with the verdict. He said UMD takes seriously the commitment to ensuring “a diverse and inclusive campus community.”

Miller, a lesbian, also alleged that her contract wasn’t renewed in December 2014 because of her sexual orientation. That claim was dismissed by Judge Patrick Schiltz of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota prior to trial because the Eighth Circuit doesn’t recognize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A gay sales executive who recently appealed his bias case to the Eighth Circuit is hoping to change that.

Persuading the Jury

Miller originally brought her discrimination and retaliation lawsuit alongside two co-workers. Jen Banford was a UMD women’s softball coach. Annette Wiles was a women’s basketball coach. Schiltz separated the women’s claims in February, kicking out Miller, Wiles, and Banford’s sex-orientation bias claims for being unsuited for federal court and allowing only Miller’s sex bias claims to proceed to trial.

A jury agreed with Miller that sex was a motivating factor in UMD’s decision not to bring her back to add to her storied coaching career. At the same time, the jury also found that Miller wouldn’t have been offered a new contract “regardless of her sex.” When asked about this inconsistency in the jury findings, counsel for UMD told Bloomberg Law it is still evaluating its post-trial options.

The jury also said the school got rid of Miller because she complained it was violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by not providing her women with the same access and funds as the men’s hockey team.

Miller’s attorney, Dan Siegel, believes two things in particular persuaded the jury. First, her legal team presented evidence that UMD changed its explanations for why it fired Miller several times. Second, it produced a spread of witnesses to support Miller’s claims.

Three former student athletes testified to rebut UMD’s argument that it fired Miller to improve the women’s hockey program. The women said they turned down Harvard University to play under Miller at UMD.

Miller was awarded a total of $3,744,832 following a seven-day trial on her claims. That was what Miller had asked for “to the dollar,” Siegel told Bloomberg Law.

Looking Ahead

“This was never just about Shannon,” said Donald Mark Jr., another of Miller’s attorneys. He sees the verdict as encouragement for young women to “stand up for how they should be treated.”

Mark and Siegel will be part of the team representing Miller, Banford, and Wiles in their upcoming sex-orientation bias lawsuit in state court.

Siegel, Jane Brummer, and Jalle Dafa of Siegel & Yee in Oakland, Calif., and Mark, Tyler Brimmer, Sharon Van Dyck, Andrew James, and Christopher Sall of Fafinski Mark & Johnson P.A., in Eden Prairie, Minn., represented Miller.

Timothy Pramas of the Office of the General Counsel for UMD in Minneapolis, and Jeanette Bazis, Jenny Gassman-Pines, and Katherine M. Swenson of Greene Espel PLLP in Minneapolis represented the Board of Regents of UMD.

The case is Miller v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Minn., D. Minn., No. 0:15-cv-03740, jury verdict 3/15/18.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law