Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

U of M system to shoulder cost of Miller award

A happy attorney Dan Siegel, Shannon Miller and Jen Banford meet with media outside the federal courthouse in Duluth on Thursday following the favorable decision by the jury in Miller’s discrimination lawsuit against UMD. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

The impact of the $3.74 million awarded Thursday to Shannon Miller in her lawsuit against the University of Minnesota Duluth will not be shouldered by UMD alone.

University of Minnesota attorney Tim Pramas said Friday that the U of M System owns an insurance company — Regents of the University of Minnesota Insurance Company — that spreads risk across all five campuses. Miller’s payment, pending any appeals, would come from that source.

“With any insurance company, you invest in such a way that you have a reserve, so if bad news comes in like this there is no immediate hit,” said Pramas, who led the legal team in UMD’s defense.

Miller, the former UMD women’s hockey coach, was awarded the money following an eight-day jury trial in federal court. The jury found that UMD discriminated against Miller on the basis of her sex, and retaliated against her for Title IX complaints she had made, when athletic director Josh Berlo opted against offering her a new contract in 2014.

Pramas said university policy says that whichever unit is part of the case — in this case UMD’s athletic department — foots the first $10,000 of any payment.

UMD is in the midst of handling a $5.4 million budget shortfall for the coming year. The university has been in cost-cutting mode for several years, thanks to past enrollment decline and decreases in state funding.

Chancellor Lendley Black wrote in an email to staff Thursday night that he remained in support of Berlo.

“I am incredibly proud of him, the athletics staff, and the student-athletes who have remained focused throughout this time and seen tremendous success in the classroom, competition and community,” he said.

He also noted that UMD was committed to offering a “diverse and inclusive” campus community. He said he “remained confident that our decision was not based on discrimination or retaliation.”

Black acknowledged that some members of the campus community may disagree with his stance, “and I respect that. This is an emotional matter that I take very seriously,” he said.

Pramas said the verdict would lead UMD to re-evaluate some practices, as any matter that ends up in court does.

“We always try to learn how we can do things better,” he said, in the event a similar issue arises. “We know because we’ve already investigated this thoroughly that this wasn’t an issue where the sex or gender of a coach was a motivation. Nevertheless, the jury told us they thought differently so we have to think about why they thought that.”

The next steps, he said, would probably include filing post-trial motions that seek to overturn the verdict or seek some sort of relief from it.

Miller was awarded nearly $745,000 in past lost wages and $3 million for past emotional distress.

The jury did not award any damages for future emotional distress, and it will be up to U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz to determine if any future lost wages should be added to the $3.74 million. Schiltz said in court Thursday that he intends to schedule a meeting in the coming weeks with attorneys to discuss how the case will proceed.

A ‘symbolic’ win

On a broader scale, Miller’s win is “symbolic for the many, many women who have very similar experiences,” said Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

“Shannon’s case is an exemplar of many other women who experience similar workplaces and have been discriminated against but don’t have the courage or resources to fight it,” she said. “It’s a brutal process and most people don’t want to subject themselves to that.”

Megan Kahn called Miller’s win one for “all of women’s sports.”

“This is a historic day and one which will set a precedent for years to come,” said Kahn, executive director of the Alliance of Women Coaches. “It’s not OK for athletic departments to discriminate. Those that do will be held accountable.”

According to the Gazette, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, newspaper, the University of Iowa paid out $6.5 million in 2017 to settle similar discrimination lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and former associate athletics director Jane Meyer. Part of that includes $1.43 million awarded to Meyer by a jury. Griesbaum was fired in 2014 after student-athletes complained she had been verbally abusive, charges she was cleared of. Meyer, her partner, found herself moved out of the athletic department and later lost her job. She had complained about the firing of Griesbaum.

Thomas Newkirk, an attorney for Griesbaum and Meyer, said Friday that his firm currently represents 15 coaches around the country on the same discrimination issues — discrimination that he says is “bringing down great woman coaches all over the country.”

He said he hopes Miller’s victory can add to the momentum of other similar wins, and help bring about “systemic change” instead of lawsuits.

Miller on Friday, aligning with the international #MeToo movement, said she was honored to be a part of “slaying the dragon” of discrimination.

“I hope I can play a small role in women having the courage to stand up for themselves, to not be treated as less than,” she said. “It’s gone on long enough. We need to stand up and fight for ourselves and others. It’s the only way it’s going to change.”

While she hopes to get back into coaching, Miller said she wants to use the money awarded to work with others to open a healing center for victims of sexual assault in Palm Springs, Calif., where she has property. It’s been a desire for years, she said, sparked by the work she did as a police officer before becoming a hockey coach.

“I’ve always wanted to do more,” she said, “and #MeToo came along and brought it back into my heart.”

LaVoi said she’d remain “cautiously optimistic” on whether Thursday’s results would create meaningful change. The Miller verdict, grouped with the 2017 settlement win for Griesbaum and others in the past few years, LaVoi said, show an “emerging pattern.”

“Certainly for those of us who care deeply about the occupational landscape for women in sport, it feels like we can breathe a little easier,” she said.