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Jury backs ex-UMD hockey coach in discrimination suit, awards $3.74M

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Shannon Miller lifts her fists in the air as she exits the courthouse.
Shannon Miller lifts her fists in the air as she exits the federal courthouse with her lead attorney, Dan Siegel, on Thursday after winning her discrimination lawsuit against UMD.
Steve Kuchera | Duluth News Tribune | skuchera@duluthnews.com

Updated: 7:45 p.m. | Posted: 5:41 p.m.

Shannon Miller was one of the most successful women's hockey coaches in the history of college sports, so she expected a pat on the back when she was called to a December 2014 meeting about her next contract at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Instead, she was told the university would not renew her contract. Her firing stoked an ongoing national debate over gender equity in college sports, especially among women's coaches, and led Miller to sue UMD for discrimination.

A federal jury in Duluth on Thursday sided with Miller, awarding her $3.74 million in damages.

Miller's attorney, Donald Chance Mark Jr., said the coach was happy with the award, but the case meant much more than that for women.

"And it's important they you have an absolute right to expect and demand compliance with federal law, which is that you be treated equally. And Shannon stood for all of those things and this jury agreed with that," he said.

Tim Pramas of the University of Minnesota's office of general counsel said he respects the jury's decision, but disagrees with it.

"We're just disappointed with the verdict because I thoroughly investigated this and this simply is not a case of discrimination," Pramas said.

Asked if the jury's decision would lead to any changes in how UMD handles personnel and dismissal, Lendley Black, the school's chancellor, said not immediately.

  "Certainly we will continue, as we always do, to review our processes and decision making, but at this point I do not anticipate any major changes because as I said earlier, I still feel confident in this decision and the grounds upon which it was made," Black said.

The University's board of regents will make a decision whether to appeal the jury's ruling.

After initially citing financial reasons for Miller's termination, the university later argued her performance had declined. UMD failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament during Miller's final four seasons, although she'd won five national championships in 16 prior seasons.

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

She also claimed the working environment at UMD was sexist and that she received hate mail but that UMD officials did nothing in response to her complaints.

Initially, three UMD coaches — 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.

A U.S. district judge last month 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 recently, alleging violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

 Correction (March 15, 2017): A previous version of this story had the incorrect date for the jury's decision.