Former UMD hockey coach's gender discrimination trial begins

UMD women's hockey coach Shannon Miller
Then-University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey head coach Shannon Miller speaks to her players in between drills Wednesday, February 11, 2015 during practice.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2015

Shannon Miller was one of the most successful women's hockey coaches in the history of college athletics.

She was the first women's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and in 16 years, won five national championships, and reached 300 wins faster than any other coach in Division I women's hockey history.

Despite that success, UMD told Miller at the end of 2014 that the university would not renew her contract, a move that garnered national attention at the time amid a wider debate over gender equity issues in college sports, especially among women's coaches.

After initially citing financial reasons for the termination, the university later argued her performance had declined. UMD failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament during Miller's final four seasons.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Her salary was the highest of any collegiate women's hockey coach in the country, and UMD officials said they decided they were no longer receiving a sufficient return on that investment.

UMD women's hockey coach Shannon Miller
Then-University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach Shannon Miller speaks to her team Wednesday, February 11, 2015.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2015

In a federal lawsuit that goes to trial this week, Miller claims the working environment at UMD was sexist, and says she received hate mail, but that UMD did nothing in response to her complaints.

She argues the real reason for her firing was gender discrimination, and as retaliation for her complaining about harassment, and her repeated reports of disparities in funding between the women's and men's hockey programs at UMD.

Jury selection in the case begins Tuesday, and the trial is expected to conclude by March 14. Miller is seeking several million dollars in damages for emotional distress and lost income, according to one of her attorneys, Don Mark Jr.

Initially, three UMD coaches — Shannon Miller, women's softball coach Jen Banford, who also worked for Miller as director of hockey operations, and women's basketball coach Annette Wiles — filed a discrimination lawsuit against the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in September 2015.

But last month, U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz dismissed the claims filed by Banford and Wiles, and narrowed the scope of Miller's trial.

Most significantly, the judge said he did not have jurisdiction to hear the coaches' claims alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation — all three women are openly gay — despite concluding that the "plaintiffs' sexual orientation claims — and in particular, their hostile environment claims — are their strongest."

The plaintiffs resubmitted those claims in Hennepin County district court last Friday, alleging violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Mark said.

The federal trial beginning Tuesday will instead focus on alleged gender discrimination and Title IX retaliation.

Judge Schiltz said Miller has presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, which will allow a jury to decide, among other things, whether:

• Scott Sandelin, UMD's men's hockey coach, had his contract renewed despite comparable (or arguably worse) performance.

• UMD applied different criteria in deciding to renew Sandelin's contract, but not Miller's.

• UMD administrators offered inconsistent explanations for their decision.

• UMD's financial condition was not as dire as it claimed.

When the university initially told Miller she would not be rehired, officials said it was because of the overall condition of university finances and budget considerations. After Miller went public with her claim that UMD fired her for discriminatory reasons, UMD changed its story, Miller alleges, only then citing performance-related reasons.

"We seriously and vigorously contest that, and we will have expert testimony that showed they could have easily paid her salary," Mark, Miller's attorney, said. "They never even tried to keep her. They never even tried to negotiate her accepting a lesser salary."

UMD says its initial public comments were limited out of respect for Miller's past service to UMD, and because the university prefers not to publicly discuss details of personnel decisions.

In court filings, UMD says Chancellor Lendley Black and athletic director Josh Berlo had concerns about the team's declining on-ice results, the team's academic performance, "and the size of Miller's contract given UMD's budgetary issues and her competitive performance."

"All along we've said we have a strong case and we continue to deny the remaining claims. And now it's time for us to take that case to the jury," said UMD spokesperson Lynne Williams.

The university is also arguing the plaintiffs don't have a legally viable option to pursue claims based on sexual discrimination in state court, which the plaintiffs filed last week.

"The University of Minnesota Duluth will bring a motion seeking prompt dismissal of any state court lawsuit," said U of M senior associate general counsel Tim Pramas.