The Minnesota Supreme Court has declined to review the dismissal of a state lawsuit filed against the University of Minnesota Duluth by three former women's sports coaches alleging discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The high court on Tuesday turned down a final appeal 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 case was dismissed last year after a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired, among other grounds.
The women filed a petition for review on Oct. 3 after the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the district court ruling in the university's favor. The Supreme Court's denial came in a one-page order without elaboration, as is standard practice.
Three members of the court — Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, Associate Justice Margaret Chutich and Associate Justice Paul Thissen — recused themselves from consideration of the case. Retired Associate Justice Christopher Dietzen was appointed on an acting basis in order to have five justices review the petition.
The decision brings a close to one chapter of the complicated tangle of litigation that started nearly five years ago. While Miller has tentatively reached a settlement agreement with the university, Banford and Wiles will be left hoping for a successful appeal in federal court to revive their legal claims.
The coaches' case claimed 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.
UMD notified Miller in December 2014 that her contract would not be renewed after 16 seasons, including five national championships. Banford and Wiles resigned their positions in the following months.
A federal judge suggested the sexual orientation claims were the "strongest" elements of the women's case, but dismissed those allegations from the federal case due to a lack of jurisdiction. Attorneys then filed the claims in state court in March 2018, the same day a federal jury found UMD liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation against Miller.
But Judge Daniel Moreno dismissed the state case last October, finding that the discrimination and equal-play claims were filed after the expiration of the statute of limitations. The judge also said the whistle-blower claims were not "factually distinct" from the discrimination allegations.
On appeal, attorneys for the coaches contended the judge applied a "mechanic, harsh understanding" of the law and said the statute of limitations should have been "tolled" — placed on hold — as the claims were initially litigated, and ultimately dismissed, in federal court.
The university disagreed, saying the plaintiffs made the strategic decision to start in federal court and that Moreno applied "long-established and on-point legal precedent" in dismissing the claims at the state level.
A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal in September.
"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 the court's opinion.
Dan Siegel, an Oakland, Calif., attorney representing the plaintiffs, said it's frustrating that the claims have never been tried on their merits, having been dismissed from both the federal and state cases on procedural grounds.
"Obviously, we are very disappointed that the Supreme Court declined the opportunity to bring Minnesota law into the mainstream on the issue of equitable tolling," Siegel told the News Tribune. "This is, for most people, one of those obscure legal issues. But most courts in most states and most federal circuits agree with our position that the statute of limitations should be tolled while the case is pending in another court."
Miller in September accepted a reduced verdict of $1.96 million in the federal case. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz also ordered the university to pay more than $2.53 million in attorneys' fees, expenses and interest, bringing its total liability to approximately $4.5 million.
Miller and the university subsequently reached a tentative agreement to resolve her claims at both the state and federal level. Attorneys on both sides of the case indicated this week that the settlement is nearly complete, awaiting final authorization. Terms have not been released.
Completion of that settlement would leave one final piece of unresolved litigation: a federal appeal from Banford and Wiles. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hold off on that case as a significant decision looms at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nation's highest court heard oral arguments in October on the issue of whether the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — a question that has divided lower courts. A decision in that case, likely to be issued by June, is expected to have significant ramifications for Banford and Wiles' appeal.