A judge on Wednesday awarded former University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller an additional $461,278 in damages in her federal discrimination suit against the school.
While denying Miller’s motion to be reinstated to her position, U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz said she is entitled to recover damages for the salary and benefits she would have collected through the 2019-20 season, had her employment not been terminated.
With a $3.74 million verdict delivered by a jury in March 2018, Schiltz’s decision brings the sum Miller stands to receive from UMD to $4.21 million.
“In light of the jury’s finding, the court determines that front pay through June 2020 is a reasonable award,” Schiltz wrote in a 17-page order. “This represents a total of five years of pay past the end of Miller’s last contract. Notably, in her request for reinstatement, Miller argues for a five-year contract. And a total of five additional years would have given the parties ample time to evaluate Miller’s performance.”
While the jury awarded damages for past lost wages and benefits and past emotional distress, only the judge can order reinstatement or award front pay.
Miller, 55, sought to get her job back or, alternatively, receive future damages for work she would have completed through a retirement age of 67 to 70 - a sum an accountant calculated to be in the range of $1.8 million to $2.94 million.
University attorneys, however, argued she was not entitled to any additional damages because she failed to make adequate efforts to secure new employment after the decision was announced not to renew her contract following the 2014-15 season.
The jury determined that Miller would have continued to be employed on the date of its verdict - March 15, 2018 - had it not been for unlawful sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation.
While reinstatement is considered the preferred remedy, Schiltz said that would be “impractical,” as it would require the removal of current head coach Maura Crowell and her staff.
The judge said Miller made sufficient efforts to find a new job and mitigate her losses but was limited in the “narrow and highly specialized” market for comparable positions in men’s and women’s collegiate and professional hockey leagues.
Last summer, she was named head coach of the Calgary Inferno - a professional women’s team paying a salary of $30,000 - but she left the team in December.
While acknowledging the jury’s findings that Miller would have remained at UMD for at least three additional seasons, Schiltz said he agreed with UMD that Miller’s salary projections were “inflated and excessive.”
The judge said it would be “wildly speculative” to assume she would have remained at UMD for another 12 to 15 years after the date of the verdict - potentially extending her tenure at UMD up to 35 years.
“There are simply too many unknowable variables that would have affected Miller’s continued employment,” Schiltz wrote. “To remain employed, she would have had to win - and she would have had to win a lot, given her very high salary. No one can know with any degree of confidence whether Miller would have been able to achieve the kind of success necessary to remain employed at UMD beyond 2020.”
With the case’s biggest unanswered question finally resolved nearly a year after the jury trial, attorneys on either side of the case expressed optimism as the case moves forward.
"We are encouraged that the judge denied the request for reinstatement and awarded plaintiff only a small fraction of the nearly $3 million she requested,” said Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota.
Dan Siegel, an attorney representing Miller, said the ruling was not unexpected.
“We’re pleased that the judge awarded front pay and we wish he had awarded more,” he said. “But it’s also not surprising. We have been working with Judge Schiltz on this case for a while and I think we have some understanding of his approach to issues like this, and his decision is consistent with that understanding.”
Case not closed yet
With his order, Schiltz formally entered judgment in the amount of $4,206,110 - a procedural step that will allow long-anticipated post-trial litigation to begin.
“We are not yet at the stage of the proceedings where the judge assesses the legal propriety of the verdict,” Pramas noted. “Now that this motion has been decided, it is our intent to proceed with filing post-trial motions seeking to overturn the jury verdict or at least reduce the amount of the award. Those motions are due by March 13."
Siegel said he is prepared to defend the verdict. He also intends to bring a motion seeking to force UMD to pay Miller’s attorneys’ fees and expenses involved in the litigation.
Eventually, Siegel said, he anticipates filing an appeal over the dismissal of sexual orientional claims brought in federal court by Miller, former softball coach and women’s hockey operations director Jen Banford and former women’s basketball coach Annette Wiles.
While calling the orientation claims the “strongest” element of the case, Schiltz dismissed the counts due to a lack of jurisdiction under precedent of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Other circuits, however, have issued contradictory rulings, and Siegel said the issue could be reversed by the appeals court or settled at the U.S. Supreme Court.
An appeal is already playing out in state court, where a district judge dismissed sexual orientation discrimination claims brought by all three women. The judge in the case said Miller could not proceed with claims similar to those already decided at the federal level and ruled that the claims were filed too late to be considered.
As UMD vows to mount a legal challenge to the verdict, Siegel said he hopes the university will simply settle the case once and for all.
“It’s a great verdict and a great result for Shannon Miller, and I hope the university will just write a check soon,” he said. “She could use money.”