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Former employee files lawsuit against UMD

Angie Nichols

The former director of the University of Minnesota Duluth's Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Services Office, who left that post last fall after 15 years on the job, has filed a lawsuit against the university.

Angie Nichols claims in the lawsuit that she faced months of discrimination based on her sexual orientation and disability, as well retaliation for being a whistleblower. Nichols also claims that her departure from UMD was a "constructive discharge" in which the school created "an environment designed to force (her) to resign."

The lawsuit, filed against the University of Minnesota Board of Regents on Wednesday in State District Court in Hennepin County, claims that the discrimination and retaliation began in December 2014 after Nichols raised concerns about UMD not renewing the contract of women's hockey coach Shannon Miller and her two assistant coaches, along with women's hockey director of operations Jen Banford, all of whom identify as gay or bisexual.

"UMD treated (Nichols) with hostility and retaliated against her because she reported sexual orientation discrimination to UMD, made statements to the public that she believed that the four GLBT coaches were terminated due to their sexual orientation and because she is openly gay and advocated for equality at UMD," the lawsuit claims.

UMD already was facing a lawsuit filed by Miller, Banford and former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles, alleging discrimination on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation and national origin. UMD has denied that the coaches were subject to discrimination, stating in court documents that Miller's dismissal was entirely performance-based and that UMD intended to keep Banford and Wiles on staff. A trial in that case is expected next year.

Nichols' attorney Jim Kaster said Thursday that Nichols is hoping that she'll have justice for what was a "significant life event." Nichols founded UMD's GLBT Services in 2000 and at the time of her resignation last September, she told the News Tribune that she was "at the top of my game" until the coaching contracts weren't renewed.

"I think she hopes like everyone in her shoes that some kind of justice will be done. This was, for her, a significant life event that caused her significant emotional distress and dislocation of her life. ... This was her life's work and it was very important to her," Kaster said.

The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $50,000.

UMD is preparing to dispute Nichols' allegations through the legal process, UMD spokeswoman Lynne Williams said Thursday.

"We remain unconditionally committed to providing a positive and inclusive climate at UMD. This is a fundamental value on our campus and a key component in our strategic plan," Williams said in a statement.

Lawsuit allegations

According to Nichols' lawsuit:

Nichols met with UMD Chancellor Lendley Black following the nonrenewal of Miller's contract in December 2014 to tell him that the university had terminated four people who identified as gay and to explain that the action "could result in liability for UMD" under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

In media coverage of the contract nonrenewal, Nichols expressed concern about UMD's decision. She also attended a demonstration to protest the contract nonrenewals held by UMD's Queer and Allied Student Union, a student group that she advised, despite a warning from Susana Pelayo-Woodward, director of the Office of Cultural Diversity, that Vice Chancellor of Student Life Lisa Erwin would consider the attendance of any of Pelayo-Woodward's employees at the demonstration "insubordination."

In February 2015, UMD was suspended from the national group Campus Pride's annual listing of LGBT-friendly schools because of the university's handling of the coaches' contracts; Nichols was quoted in the media coverage of the suspension.

Following the media coverage, Nichols claims she began to notice that UMD faculty and staff were bypassing her and not consulting her on LGBT campus issues that were within her job responsibilities. That included not being consulted as UMD's Campus Pride administrator nor invited to a February 2015 meeting of UMD's Crisis Response Team and Public Relations on the suspension of the university from the Campus Pride listing.

In February 2015, the lawsuit claims, Pelayo-Woodward told Nichols that "UMD's administration was very upset that (Nichols) was making the dismissal of the coaches about sexual orientation and blamed (Nichols) for the negative press regarding the Campus Pride suspension ...

"Woodward had previously told (Nichols) that UMD employees had been retaliated against and ultimately terminated for offering a viewpoint contrary to that of Vice Chancellor Erwin," the lawsuit states.

Nichols claims she began hearing rumors about her pending termination in February 2015 and that coworkers were wagering bets on how long it would be until she was terminated. She says she was told by a member of the UMD Police Department that she was "under surveillance" and the university was looking for a reason to terminate her.

Nichols claims that in a February 2015 meeting, Erwin forbid her from contacting anyone in the Athletics Department or Registrar's Office — even though it was necessary for Nichols to do so as part of her job duties.

Beginning in March 2015, other UMD staff were assigned to work with Campus Pride and complete the Campus Pride assessment, which fell within the scope of Nichols' job responsibilities, the lawsuit claims. And an April 2015 performance review of Nichols, conducted by Pelayo-Woodward as they had been for about 10 years, was the first of those reviews "where a merit salary increase was not recommended or even mentioned."

The UMD Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office in April 2015 started an investigation into Nichols' claims of discrimination and retaliation. That investigation concluded in September 2015 that no retaliation took place, but the lawsuit claims that many of the witnesses provided by Nichols weren't interviewed.

Nichols, who is a military veteran and says in the lawsuit that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, claims in the lawsuit that her condition was exacerbated by a hostile work environment.

She went on medical leave in June 2015 and on returning to work that August asked for three accommodations at work for her PTSD, as recommended by her medical providers. UMD granted two of her requests, but declined her request to have her supervisor changed from Erwin and Pelayo-Woodward to the dean of education. The lawsuit claims that other UMD employees had their supervisors changed when requested for reasons other than a disability.

The denial of the supervisory change and the conclusions of the internal investigation caused Nichols to experience depression and anxiety, the lawsuit claims. She left her position on Sept. 23 and filed a charge of discrimination with state and federal officials on Oct. 8. In February 2016, the lawsuit states, Nichols was informed by the U.S. Department of Justice that she had a right to file civil action against UMD.

UMD also is facing a federal Title IX complaint filed late last year by Miller along with two other former coaches and five current or former student-athletes who have claimed more than 50 instances of gender discrimination. The allegations include disparities in funding for travel, meals, recruitment, equipment and scholarships between men's and women's teams.

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