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UMD discrimination lawsuit set to return to court

Former UMD women basketball coach Annette Wiles, softball coach Jen Banford and hockey coach Shannon Miller announce a lawsuit against the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota at the offices of their attorneys in Eden Prairie, Minn., in September 2015. Two of their lawyers are Dan Siegel (far left) and Donald Mark Jr. (far right). Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Minneapolis Star Tribune

A judge will be asked this week to rule on several evidentiary disputes in the $18 million discrimination lawsuit filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women’s sports coaches.

Attorneys for the coaches say the school is refusing to turn over key documents related to the athletic department, denying a look at the finances and management decisions central to their case.

The university’s attorneys, meanwhile, argue that the plaintiffs are withholding their current tax returns and business dealings, making it impossible to assess if they have suffered loss of income.

“We’ve had some disagreements between the two sides that we haven’t been able to work out,” Dan Siegel, an Oakland, Calif., attorney representing the coaches, told the News Tribune last week. “It’s unfortunate to have to get the court involved, but this is something that happens all the time, in any type of case.”

The lawsuit was brought in September 2015 by former women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, former softball coach Jen Banford and former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles, alleging discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation and national origin.

Attorneys have only appeared in court once — in January, for an initial pretrial conference — but they have been exchanging discovery requests throughout the year.

Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois has scheduled a hearing for Thursday in U.S. District Court in Duluth to consider numerous motions brought this month, though attorneys said the judge could bypass the hearing and rule based on written arguments.

The coaches’ attorneys are asking the judge to order the release of internal university documents, including those pertaining to contracts for other coaches, performance bonuses, fringe benefits and donations to UMD’s athletic programs.

Andrew James, another attorney representing the coaches, said the information is an “integral component” of their claims. He said the documents are necessary as they prepare to take depositions of athletic department officials.

“Plaintiffs expect the documentation will show UMD’s misuse of donation funds in a discriminatory manner and conditions being placed on donation money in a manner harmful to UMD’s women’s athletics teams,” James wrote in a memorandum. “This documentation is also important for plaintiffs, and their experts, to assess the budget for UMD’s athletics department and assess the credibility of defendant’s claim that finances prevented it from extending Shannon Miller’s coaching contract.”

The university’s attorneys have said in filings that some of the requests were “overly broad, unduly burdensome, vague and ambiguous” and that they have turned over all documents that are not protected by privilege.

They’ve filed their own requests with the court, arguing that the plaintiffs should be required to submit more-complete tax and business information.

Miller, 52, and Banford, 35, have moved to Palm Springs, Calif., where they are operating a pedal pub operation. Banford also briefly served as head softball coach and kinesiology instructor for the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif.

Wiles, 47, moved to Kansas and began working in August as the athletic director at Topeka High School.

Katherine Swenson, a Minneapolis attorney representing the university, argued that the plaintiffs are attempting to “hide extraordinarily relevant documents and information that may well assist the university in defending against plaintiffs’ baseless claims.”

Swenson argued that Miller and Banford could be “refraining from distributing profits from (their business) ... stockpiling cash, or distributing monies to a third party for safekeeping, in order to bolster their claims for lost income.”

Miller and Banford have denied receiving any profits from the business, other than income to pay for internet, phone and car payments. All three former coaches have declined to turn over complete tax returns, calling the request for tax returns an invasion of privacy.

“Each plaintiff has made an issue of her income by claiming loss of income due to the university’s alleged conduct,” Swenson wrote. “Plaintiffs must produce their tax returns, which are relevant to the extent of plaintiffs’ alleged financial injuries and their mitigation thereof.”

The university is also seeking an order requiring each plaintiff to undergo an interview with a vocational rehabilitation expert, who would assess their “employment potential and their employment market and opportunities.”

Miller, who led the women’s hockey program to five national championships in her 16 years as head coach, was informed in December 2014 that her contract would not be renewed after that season.

Banford was informed at the same time as the rest of Miller’s hockey staff that she would not be brought back as the team’s director of hockey operations; she later rejected a one-year contract offer from UMD to remain as softball coach.

Wiles announced her resignation as head women’s basketball coach in June 2015 after seven seasons with the Bulldogs.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys have demanded $8 million for Miller and $5 million each for Banford and Wiles, alleging “discrimination by an educational institution receiving federal assistance, reprisal because of their reporting of that discrimination, creation of a hostile work environment, violation of federal and state equal pay statutes, and violation of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.”

All three women are openly gay. Miller and Banford are both Canadian.

The university has denied that the coaches were subject to discrimination, arguing that Miller’s dismissal was entirely performance-based and that the university supported and intended to keep Banford and Wiles on staff.

“The university feels strongly that the allegations of discrimination are without merit, and will continue to fight them through the legal process,” Tim Pramas, the university’s senior associate general counsel, said in a statement on Friday. “The university’s motivation is to act with the best interests of our students in mind. As it relates to active litigation, the university will not have anything further to share at this time.”

Brisbois has ordered the parties to be prepared for trial by Aug. 1.

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