An exuberant Shannon Miller emerged from the front doors of the federal courthouse in Duluth on Thursday afternoon, pumping her fists amid cheers and celebratory music from a crowd of supporters.
Minutes earlier, jurors awarded the former University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach $3.74 million after an eight-day trial in her lawsuit against her longtime employer.
The jury of eight women and four men took a little over four hours to find that UMD discriminated against Miller on the basis of her sex and retaliated against her for making Title IX complaints when officials decided in December 2014 not to offer her a new contract.
“It’s a big day for women,” Miller proclaimed on the courthouse steps. “Women in general, but especially women in college athletics.”
Standing by her side, Miller’s lead attorney, Dan Siegel, used the word “brave” to describe his client, crediting her for taking on the three-year legal battle to great personal sacrifice.
“It’s a real rebuke to the leadership of UMD, and to the athletic department in particular,” Siegel said of the verdict. “I hope it’s a new day for this university and this community as women all over the world are saying, ‘Time’s up.’ ”
After hearing closing arguments, the jury unanimously completed a seven-question verdict form that found UMD liable on both counts.
Miller held hands with her partner, Jen Banford, and several supporters could be seen shaking with excitement and crying as U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz read the verdict at 4:15 p.m.
Athletic director Josh Berlo sat at the defense table, flanked by attorneys, as he did throughout the trial. Chancellor Lendley Black watched from the front row of the public gallery.
During a news conference outside the courthouse, the chancellor stood firm in defense of his decision not to give the five-time championship winning coach a new contract after 16 seasons.
“I want to say I’m extremely disappointed in this decision and very surprised by the decision,” Black said. “I still stand behind the actions that I took at UMD, and know personally why I made the decisions I made.”
Black and Tim Pramas, the university’s senior associate general counsel who led the legal team, said it was too early to decide how UMD will proceed with potential motions or appeals.
“This is one step in the process,” Pramas said. “It was certainly not the result that we wanted, but we will continue to contest and dispute the claims. This was not a case of discrimination, and we will consider all of our legal options. There are many steps left in the process.”
Jurors awarded Miller her requested $744,832 in past lost wages and $3 million for past emotional distress. They did not award any damages for future emotional distress, and it will be up to the judge to determine if any future lost wages should be added.
Schiltz said he intends to schedule a meeting in the coming weeks with attorneys to discuss how the case will proceed.
Pramas and Siegel each spent about an hour delivering their final pitches to the jury in front of a packed courtroom earlier Thursday.
Siegel spoke of Miller’s advocacy for her team and her complaints to administrators about disparities between the men’s and women’s hockey teams, and reiterated Miller’s success on the international stage.
Siegel narrowed in on Berlo, who made the recommendation to sever ties with Miller after a year and a half on the job, arguing that he was inexperienced and unqualified for the athletic director job at UMD.
“She is a strong, tough-minded former police officer who will fight for her team, her players, her rights, and is paid more than him,” Siegel told jurors. “It may have just been a little overwhelming.”
Pramas argued that the evidence was consistent in showing that the university non-renewed Miller out of concerns for declining competitive success, academic issues and a high cost-per-victory as the university faced a major budget shortfall.
He cited hiring and promoting statistics and trial testimony about diversity efforts from both Berlo and Black on campus, in denying that Miller’s sex or past complaints were motivating factors in the December 2014 decision.
Pramas told jurors that finding in Miller’s favor would leave Black and Berlo “branded as prejudiced.”
“You would have to believe that this prejudice laid dormant throughout their lives, appeared for this one decision, and then returned to hibernation,” he argued.
Siegel called Miller a “role model for women everywhere” and described her as “the pride of Duluth.” Citing a shifting rationale in public statements in the months after Miller’s non-renewal, he contended that “UMD’s explanations are not worthy of belief.”
“Most of what you heard today was never part of the decision until after it was made,” Siegel said.
Pramas argued that the evidence presented at trial established that while budgets differed between the men’s and women’s hockey teams, the teams had similar opportunities and that administration worked to address Miller’s complaints as they arose.
“When Ms. Miller complained,” Pramas said, “UMD responded.”
In his final moments before the jury, Siegel said UMD’s decision deeply affected both his client and the community.
“She has been damaged by this,” he said. “The UMD women’s hockey program has been damaged by this. The city of Duluth has been damaged by this.”
Black was asked afterward if the verdict caused him to re-evaluate the decision.
“This is still very fresh, but I will certainly take time to rethink the process and things we did,” he said. “But I can tell you I stand firm again on the decision that was made, and the reasons that it was made I know were justified and did not involve discrimination.”
Miller and her legal team said the verdict has them feeling confident as they look forward to a separate legal action that is anticipated to be filed in state court. Miller, Banford - a former UMD softball coach and director of women's hockey operations - and former UMD women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles claim that UMD discriminated against them on the basis of their sexual orientation.
While Judge Schiltz earlier called that the “strongest” element on their case, he said he lacked jurisdiction to hear it at the federal level. UMD, though, has asserted that the three women have no “legally viable state court option.”
“Perhaps UMD didn’t believe or agree that we had any good claims, but now that we’ve won on our ‘weak’ claim - and won almost $4 million - UMD should do the right thing and settle with Jen and Annette and Shannon,” Siegel said. “The theme here is healing the community and people moving on.”
With a major victory under her belt, the 54-year-old Miller, who now lives in Las Vegas and runs a small business with Banford, was asked about her plans for the future.
She said she’ll continue to apply for open college hockey jobs and would be honored to have a chance to become the first female coach in the National Hockey League.
“There’s a lot of men coaching in women’s athletics,” she said. “I absolutely see no reason why women can’t coach in men’s athletics.”