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Focus narrows for discrimination lawsuit brought by 3 ex-UMD coaches

MINNEAPOLIS — A federal discrimination lawsuit brought against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women's sports coaches appears headed to trial, though a judge indicated Monday, Oct. 30, that he's inclined to toss parts of the case.

During a three-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz expressed skepticism over arguments made by both sides in the university's motion for summary judgment.

While urging attorneys for the plaintiffs to narrow the focus of the case, and hinting that he would grant parts of the university's motion, the judge also told defense attorneys that he saw sufficient evidence for a jury to review some of the claims.

One key component the judge appeared willing to allow is former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller's claim that she was subjected to discrimination on the basis of gender. Miller, a five-time national championship winning coach, was informed in December 2014 that her contract was not being renewed after 16 seasons.

Schiltz suggested that a jury should assess the job duties and resources given to Miller and Scott Sandelin, her longtime counterpart in the men's hockey program, and determine if there was cause to end Miller's employment while extending Sandelin's contract.

"They seem like comparators to me," Schiltz said of the coaching positions. "I could see a jury deciding that one was better, that the other was better, or that they were both very good — and one was renewed and the other was not."

The decision to part ways with Miller is perhaps the highest-profile component of the suit. When the move was announced in December 2014, university officials labeled it as a financial consideration. However, in subsequent months, they cited declining competitive and academic success as factors.

UMD has said the initial statement was given in deference to Miller, and that further reasons were only publicly disclosed when the school was met with harsh criticism over the decision. But Schiltz said the changing statements create questions that a jury could consider.

"It started with pure finances and ended up with finances barely being mentioned after a few months," the judge said.

Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota, told the judge that the decision was always about more than finances.

"They were trying to put the best face on it," he said. "It was not a case of shifting rationale."

Miller filed the suit in September 2015 with Jen Banford, the former women's softball coach and women's hockey director of operations, and Annette Wiles, the former women's basketball coach. They alleged discrimination on the basis of age, sex, sexual orientation and national origin.

Banford and Wiles submitted their resignations within six months of Miller's nonrenewal. They have claimed a hostile work environment led to their departures. However, UMD has said it intended to retain both women and that they left voluntarily.

Schiltz was more skeptical of the claims made by Banford and Wiles. He said it appeared from the evidence that UMD did intend to retain Banford as softball coach — despite letting her go from the hockey job — and was working with Wiles to keep her on despite some negative feedback received in player surveys.

The judge also questioned the jurisdiction for the case — suggesting that the plaintiffs' case may have been better suited for filing in state court. He said he could not consider the sexual orientation claims due to binding precedent from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It seems to me your best horse is sexual orientation," the judge said. "You're not going to be litigating on your best turf."

Dan Siegel, an Oakland, Calif., attorney for the plaintiffs, conceded that they would not be pursuing the age, sexual orientation or national origin claims, but said the case will focus on gender and comparisons between the men's and women's sports programs at UMD.

Siegel said afterward that he wasn't concerned about the narrowing of the case.

"We're going to work with our claims and work with the evidence and present the strongest claims we can," he said. "(Gender discrimination) has always been the strongest part of our case."

Schiltz said he expected to issue a written ruling on UMD's summary judgment motion by the end of the year. Summary judgment is a process that allows one party to ask the judge to rule in its favor if the evidence is so overwhelming that the other side would be unable to prevail at trial.

Underscoring the importance of Monday's hearing was the courtroom presence of several key figures, including Miller, Chancellor Lendley Black and Athletic Director Josh Berlo.

Assuming some claims are left intact, a trial has been scheduled for March 2018, the plaintiffs' attorneys reported late Monday. While UMD has asked for separate trials for each plaintiff, the judge said he would be inclined to keep the claims under one proceeding.

Representatives for both sides said they left the hearing feeling confident.

While Schiltz didn't appear poised to grant the university's motion to dismiss the entire case, Pramas said he was left encouraged by the likelihood that the scope of the case will be narrowed significantly.

"I thought the judge showed great knowledge of the record — the facts that were submitted — and I was pleased with the lines of questioning," Pramas said. "It's in the judge's hands now, and we hope for a favorable outcome."

Miller said she was simply relieved that the case appeared to finally be headed before a jury.

"I ask everyone to summon the courage to fight against discrimination and injustice," she said. "It's the right thing to do, and it's what we're doing here. ...It's been a long journey, and I'm excited about the day we walk into the courthouse to initiate trial."