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UMD moves to overturn Miller verdict

Shannon Miller is flanked by lead attorney, Dan Siegel, and Jen Banford after winning her discrimination lawsuit against UMD in March 2018. (file / News Tribune)

Nearly a full year after a jury rendered its verdict in Shannon Miller's federal lawsuit against the University of Minnesota Duluth, much remains at stake in the contentious case.

The university on Wednesday took the long-promised formal step of filing a motion to overturn the verdict, which was recently increased to $4.21 million. Attorneys are seeking judgment in UMD's favor, a new trial or a reduction in damages.

Meanwhile, the longtime women's hockey coach is asking a judge to order her former employer to pay her legal bills, as well as interest on the verdict. If those motions are granted, it could leave the university on the hook for more than $3 million in additional expenses.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz, who presided over last year's two-week trial, is expected to consider both motions over the next several months.

The Duluth jury returned its verdict finding UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation on March 15, 2018. The 12-member panel awarded Miller $3 million for past emotional distress and $744,832 in past lost wages and benefits, but declined to award damages for future emotional distress. Schiltz last month added $461,278 in future earnings.

The university, in its 38-page memorandum filed Wednesday, described the verdict as "hopelessly infected with legal and factual error."

Attorneys contended that the case never should have gone to trial, and that the evidence "overwhelmingly" supported UMD's contention that there was no discrimination or retaliation involved in the decision not to renew Miller's contract after the 2014-15 season.

"Miller's evidence might arguably have shown that the university's decision was erroneous, harsh or unfair — but it did not come close to allowing a jury to conclude that the decision was unlawful," attorney Jeanette Bazis wrote.

The university cited several pieces of "irrelevant" and "prejudicial" evidence it said should not have been admitted: pay differential between Miller and men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin, expert testimony on industry-wide discrimination against female coaches, "stale" workplace complaints Miller made over her tenure, and financial data for the athletic department.

Attorneys also attacked the closing argument of Miller's lead counsel, Dan Siegel, who referenced the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in his final pitch to jurors.

"In telling the majority-female jury that 'women need to stand up,' Miller's counsel was blatantly and improperly inviting the jury to find in Miller's favor based on gender solidarity and to punish the university for historical and societal discrimination against women in college athletics," Bazis said.

The university's motion asks Schiltz to reverse the jury's findings and rule in UMD's favor. Alternatively, it seeks a new trial on the claims.

As a last resort, attorneys asked the judge to greatly reduce the "grossly excessive damages award," which they said is not supported by evidence presented at trial or federal case law.

Miller's attorneys are expected to file a brief rebutting the university's arguments. Anticipating the motion, Siegel recently told the News Tribune that he was prepared to defend the verdict.

"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 last month.

Miller's attorneys last month indicated to the court that they would seek the recovery of approximately $2.87 million in attorneys' fees and another $100,000 in other related costs incurred in the case. Federal law gives the court discretion to order reimbursement of "reasonable" fees to the prevailing party in civil cases.

Her attorneys on Wednesday also asked the court to impose $153,552 in pre- and post-trial interest on the verdict, dating as far back as December 2014, when she was first informed her contract would not be renewed.

Siegel said he also anticipates an eventual 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.

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