Two former University of Minnesota Duluth women's sports coaches may have their lawsuit against the school revived in wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday.
The nation's highest court said in a 6-3 opinion that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, settling an issue that had divided lower courts for years.
For former UMD coaches Jen Banford and Annette Wiles, whose claims were dismissed on that basis, the decision amounts to a new day in court.
"We're back in business," Sharon Van Dyck, a Minneapolis attorney representing the women, said a few hours after the opinion was released. "It's a wonderful day."
Banford, who served as softball coach and women's hockey operations director, and Wiles, who coached the women's basketball team, sued the university in 2015 in a case that also included former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller.
The plaintiffs alleged, among other claims, that they were subjected to a hostile work environment and, ultimately, were forced from their jobs because all three are lesbians. Miller was notified in December 2014 that her contract was not being renewed after 16 seasons; Banford and Wiles resigned in the following months.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz opined that the orientation claims may have been the "strongest" element of the case. But he granted the university's motion to dismiss those counts in February 2018, citing existing precedent from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prevented the litigation of those claims in federal court in Minnesota.
Miller was allowed to proceed to trial on claims of sex discrimination and retaliation. A jury ruled in her favor in March 2018, and she officially settled all claims with the university last fall for $4.53 million.
But Banford and Wiles were forced to turn to the appeals court in hopes of reviving their cases. With the Supreme Court decision looming, the 8th Circuit agreed last fall to hold off on proceedings until there was clear guidance on the issue.
Van Dyck said she now expects to ask the 8th Circuit to dispense with the standard appellate process and send the case back to district court, where a jury could consider the coaches' claims. She noted that Banford and Wiles have already had to wait nearly five years without ever having their claims tried on merits.
"Most cases don't take this long," Van Dyck said. "Most cases you're not waiting around for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on something."
Despite the ruling, UMD spokesperson Lynne Williams said the university remains confident that it will prevail in its defense.
"UMD and Bulldog Athletics continues to embrace our core values around inclusion and diversity that already align with Minnesota state law and the University of Minnesota's code of conduct, which prohibits harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation," Williams said in a statement.
"As for the appeal, most claims from Ms. Banford and Ms. Wiles were dismissed based on lack of evidence, and on that basis we do not believe the ultimate outcome of this case will be any different."
Monday's decision was closely watched by LGBTQ rights activists, who have long fought to have sexual orientation covered by the federal anti-discrimination law. While the court said that issue was not likely envisioned by Congress when the legislation was written 56 years ago, the justices ruled that the word "sex" can be read to include bias on the basis of orientation or identity.
"An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex," Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. "Sex plays a necessary and undisguishable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids."
Dan Siegel, an Oakland, California, attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he wasn't sure how the Supreme Court would come down on the issue. The ruling was notable for the fact that two conservative members, Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts, joined the four liberal members in the majority.
"It is a great decision," Siegel said. "I think it surprised a lot of people. But it's good news for Jen and Annette."