The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld the dismissal of a state lawsuit filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women's sports coaches.
A district judge last October threw out the case from former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller, former women's basketball coach Annette Wiles and former softball coach and women's hockey operations director Jen Banford.
Their complaint alleged discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, creation of a hostile work environment and reprisal under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, as well as violations of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Law and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act.
But Judge Daniel Moreno, of Hennepin County, determined that the lawsuit — filed in March 2018 — was brought after the statute of limitations expired. The judge also said Miller could not seek additional damages based largely on the same facts that were presented in a federal trial.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the dismissal in July. A 12-page opinion issued Tuesday affirmed Moreno's findings.
The decision has no bearing on the $4.21 million award Miller received in federal court after a jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation in the December 2014 decision not to offer her a new contract after 16 seasons. But it does, for the time being, bring a close to the claims of Banford and Wiles, who resigned their positions in the following months.
"We are pleased that we won in the Minnesota Court of Appeals," said Tim Pramas, senior associate general counsel for the University of Minnesota. "We believed from the outset that the plaintiffs' claims in state court lacked merit and we are happy that a unanimous decision from the Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's dismissal of all of those claims."
Dan Siegel, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The claims were initially included in the federal case, filed in September 2015, and U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz at one point called the sexual-orientation allegations the "strongest" element of the women's case. But Schiltz ruled in February 2018 that he did not have jurisdiction to hear those claims in federal court, so the plaintiffs refiled the case in state court the next month.
The university subsequently moved for dismissal, arguing, among other factors, that the claims were not filed in a timely manner. Moreno agreed.
Siegel contended on appeal that the district judge erred by applying a "mechanic, harsh understanding" of the law. He said the state of limitations should have been "tolled" — placed on hold — as the claims were initially litigated, and ultimately dismissed, in federal court.
But the appeals court was not swayed.
“Not only was there no factor completely outside the coaches’ control which prevented them from meeting the state-court statutory deadlines, (but) Supreme Court precedent indicated that, when the university raised its immunity defense in its answer, the coaches needed to bring their state-law claims before the expiration of the limitations period," Judge Renee Worke wrote in Tuesday's opinion.
The panel also cited the parallel proceedings in federal court.
“In the coaches’ own words, the two sets of claims are not factually distinct, as both allege that the coaches suffered adverse employment consequences because they opposed employment practices forbidden under the (Minnesota Human Rights Act)," Worke wrote.
The coaches could seek further review from the Minnesota Supreme Court. A petition to the high court would need to be filed within 30 days.
There is also a chance the issue could still be revived in federal court, as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide in its upcoming term whether the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
As that decision looms, Schiltz is weighing several post-trial motions, including UMD's request to reverse the verdict or grant a new trial and Miller's demand for nearly $3 million in attorneys' fees.