EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Former University of Minnesota Duluth coaches Shannon Miller, Jen Banford and Annette Wiles took their grievances against their former employer to the next level Monday morning by filing an eight-count complaint against the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in U.S. District Court.
The lawsuit by the three openly gay female coaches, who held a news conference later in the day in Eden Prairie, includes claims of discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation and - in the case of Canadians Banford and Miller - national origin.
“Sexism and homophobia are alive and well at the University of Minnesota,” said Miller, who led the Bulldogs to five NCAA national championships as women’s hockey coach, on Monday at the offices of a Twin Cities law firm. “The previous administration supported women’s sports and the rights of lesbian coaches and students. Changes in the campus leadership and hiring of the new athletic director led to the purge of the women you see before you today.”
Miller and her attorneys, Dan Siegel of Oakland, Calif., and Donald Chance Mark Jr. of Eden Prairie, were the only ones to speak Monday at the law firm.
Banford, the former softball coach, and Wiles, the former women’s basketball coach, declined to speak with the media through their attorneys.
The three former UMD coaches and their lawyers are seeking a jury trial and while no dollar amounts were mentioned in the news conference or lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking back pay, front pay, damages for emotional distress, compensatory damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs and prejudgment interest.
Initial proceedings are expected to begin next month, Siegel said.
The lawsuit outlines concerns over disparities in the treatment of men’s and women’s sports programs at UMD, and claims that university administrators discriminated against the three coaches and failed to investigate reports of harassment and discrimination.
In a telephone interview, UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said he wouldn’t respond to specific allegations in the lawsuit, but he defended the school’s handling of the situation.
“I would say that we do take all matters of concern that are expressed to us seriously, and we do investigate,” Black said.
Black cited “other viewpoints” among those in UMD’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and in Duluth as a whole.
“Other people have had different experiences,” he said, while declining to offer specific examples. “There is a significant difference of opinion on these issues.”
The university announced last December that Miller’s contract would not be renewed after the 2014-15 season. In the months since, Miller has pointed out funding disparities between the men’s and women’s hockey programs. She also publicly accused the university of discriminating against her based on her age, gender and sexuality - but failed to provide specific details on those accusations until the filing of Monday’s suit.
In the complaint, Miller alleges she began receiving harassing mail in her work mailbox on April 30, 2010, that included several pieces calling her a derogatory term and suggesting she “go home.” Others said “goodbye” and “the end,” according to the complaint. Miller also claims in the suit she received newspaper clippings showing the disparity between the attendance at men’s and women’s hockey games with Miller’s salary written on the clippings.
Miller, 51, claims she reported the harassing mail to then-human resources director Judith Karon, but “no remedial action was taken by Karon or the University,” the complaint alleges. By March 9, 2011, Miller claims, four harassing mail incidents had taken place and no action had been taken, despite her registering complaints with human resources, then-athletic director Bob Nielson, then-vice chancellor Bill Wade and Black.
Miller also alleges “no remedial action” was taken after she shared with Karon her concerns regarding a male co-worker who referred to Miller by a derogatory term. Miller also alleges that the same unnamed co-worker told several co-workers he “would be the one to bring Miller down.”
According to the lawsuit, UMD did launch a formal investigation around October 2011 after Miller sent a formal complaint to Black and Karon regarding the climate in the athletic department - despite Miller making it clear at that time that she feared an investigation would make things worse.
In a statement, Black said the school had handled the issues “professionally and appropriately.”
“Certainly we can do things better,” he told the News Tribune later Monday. “Diversity is a difficult process and an ongoing process. I will continue to listen to concerns and continue to foster best practices.”
Banford, 34, who was the women’s hockey team’s director of operations in addition to serving as head softball coach, claims in the lawsuit that she also received harassing mail on April 30, 2010, similar to what Miller received. Banford claims she also reported the harassing mail to Nielson, Karon and Wade.
Banford claims in the suit that due to alleged false statements made by athletic director Josh Berlo concerning the renewal of her contract as head softball coach, she experienced additional public scrutiny and that hostility in the athletic department “escalated significantly.” She claims incidents of supervisory staff threats, such as “I would punch her.” The lawsuit doesn’t attribute the quote to anyone specifically.
Banford accuses UMD assistant athletic director Jay Finnerty of attempting to isolate her and turning others against her regarding usage of Malosky Stadium in the lawsuit. Banford also alleges Finnerty held softball and hockey equipment “hostage.”
“We believe we have a university here that has a very serious problem with gender issues and LGBT issues,” said Siegel, who went on to cite the resignation last week of the founding director of UMD's Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Services, Angie Nichols.
Wiles, 46, claims in the lawsuit she has been subjected to discrimination at UMD based on her gender and sexual orientation since being hired in 2008. She alleges Berlo and assistant athletic director Abbey Strong “established a pattern of disrespect, exclusion, and lack of civility in their interactions with Wiles.”
Wiles claims that Berlo was polite to her when he was hired in 2013 up until October of that year, when Wiles was the keynote speaker for the GLBT National Coming Out Day luncheon on the UMD campus. Wiles planned to publicly come out as a lesbian at the event, the lawsuit states.
After declining invites to the event from Wiles, Berlo allegedly asked Wiles a few days after the event, “Did you give it a lot of thought before you decided to speak?” - something that Wiles, in the lawsuit, claims she understood as Berlo questioning her decision because of potential negative effects on her career.
Wiles claims in the suit it was after that event that she began getting “shunned and excluded” and her interactions with Strong became “a nasty experience,” though no specific examples are mentioned in the document.
Wiles claims Berlo rarely spoke to her after the National Coming Out Day luncheon, and she alleges Berlo “purposely excluded Wiles from department meetings, creating the appearance that she simply did not show up” and routinely rescheduled meetings with Wiles.
The lawsuit alleges that Wiles was “tersely ordered” by Berlo in the fall of 2014 to sign a budget that did not include scholarship increases promised by Berlo’s predecessor, Nielson. If she hadn’t, Wiles claims in the lawsuit, Berlo allegedly said she would be “given her ‘walking papers.’ ”
Black reiterated his support for Berlo on Monday.
“We are continuing to be committed to issues of diversity and inclusivity on our campus,” Black said. “That hasn’t changed and it won’t change. That’s one of our core values. … I’m confident the truth will come out.”
Wiles claims in the lawsuit that she sought help from the university, saying she spoke with Strong in the fall of 2013 and early 2014 about Berlo’s alleged “rude, disrespectful, and uncivilized behavior” on campus, but no remedial action or protection was provided. Wiles claims in May 2014, she met with vice chancellor Lisa Erwin about disparate treatment in the athletic department, discrimination on the basis of gender and concerns regarding perceived bigotry by Berlo. Wiles also said she met with human resources associate director Mary Cameron in the fall of 2014 regarding disparate treatment. The lawsuit states that Wiles filed a formal complaint with the university in March 2015 and she met with an investigator in April 2015.
Wiles, like Banford, did not speak Monday, but in the lawsuit, she claims she has suffered negative health effects - including being admitted to the emergency room on numerous occasions with chest pains - allegedly as a result of the hostility and discrimination she claims she experienced.
“You can see this type discrimination and harassment is not simply a technical and philosophical manner,” Siegel said. “It really has a tremendous toll on people.”
Both Miller and Banford say in the complaint they experienced hostility as Canadians at UMD. Miller is originally from Melfort, Saskatchewan, but became an American citizen in 2012. Banford is from Ottawa, Ontario. Both coaches claim Berlo stated that “there are too many Canadians around here.” Miller alleges the phrase came up when she hired Gina Kingsbury, a gay Canadian female, as an assistant women’s hockey coach in 2014.
In addition to claims of discrimination based on age, gender, sexual orientation and national origin, the eight-count lawsuit filed by Miller, Banford and Wiles alleges reprisal, creation of a hostile work environment, unlawful retaliation and discrimination and violation of equal pay for equal work laws under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1991, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Pay Act and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.
The California attorney also said during the news conference that he is working with a group of current and former female UMD student-athletes from multiple sports including hockey, softball and basketball. He said he will be filing a complaint on their behalf to the U.S. Department of Education.
News Tribune reporter John Lundy contributed to this report.